New NC tracking system recovers 33 stolen vehicles in first month

sgilman@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

  • Number of stolen vehicle hits in December:

    Asheville: 1

    Benson: 1

    Charlotte: 10

    Clinton: 1

    Concord: 1

    Durham: 4

    Fairmont: 1

    Fayetteville: 2

    Garner: 2

    Greenville: 1

    Hamlet: 1

    High Point: 2

    Lumberton: 1

    New Bern: 1

    Rocky Mountain: 1

    Siler City: 1

    Spring Lake: 3

    Thomasville: 2

    Wilkesboro: 1

    Wilmington: 3

    Winston-Salem: 1

    Total: 41

— A man drove a gray, late ’90s model Pontiac Grand Prix to Foss Recycling in Durham last month in hopes of selling it for scrap for a few hundred dollars. But the sale was blocked after manager Anthony Smith entered the vehicle identification number and the man’s driver’s license number into a website.

The car had been stolen.

“We called 911, and they were here in minutes,” said Lisa Van Auken, a bookkeeper at Foss.

After police arrived, the man – who “acted surprised,” according to Smith – departed with them. The police also towed the car.

The Pontiac was one of 41 vehicles flagged as being stolen by North Carolina’s new Scrap Vehicle Reporting System since it became operational on Dec. 1. Created by the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, the system requires salvage yards and metals recyclers to consult a new computer database before buying any vehicle that is at least a decade old and missing a title to see if it is one of the more than 15,000 vehicles reported stolen in the state each year.

The program accesses the National Crime Information Center and pulls up any information related to the car. If it has been reported stolen, it alerts the buyer as well as the DMV License and Theft Bureau. At that point, the buyer may not legally complete the sale.

“It instantly gives a response,” Smith said. “It’s a great tool.”

The 41 reports generated by the system resulted in 33 recovered stolen vehicles. Five of the vehicles got crushed because the theft reports hit the system after they had been sold; two had been stolen so long ago police labeled the cases “purged”; and one turned out to not be stolen.

All 33 recovered vehicles went back to the original owners.

“That’s 33 vehicles that would have been scrapped, and the owner of that vehicle would never have seen that car again,” said Travis Ward, president of the Recycle Association of North Carolina.

The association, a nonprofit comprising 54 salvage yards and metals recyclers in North Carolina, helped forge the legislation. Recyclers stand to lose on transactions of stolen cars, since it is against federal law to dismantle or store stolen cars.

Jimmie Foss, owner of Foss Recycling, said the new system is a great safeguard against those losses.

“If we buy a car that’s been stolen, it’s given back to the person who it was stolen from, and we don’t get the money back,” Foss said. He could take the seller to court, but he said going through the court system would end up costing more than the worth of the car.

Before the state’s new reporting system, it was easy for a car thief to sell a vehicle for scrap metal for a few hundred dollars. Police could call salvage yards and recyclers to see if they had purchased cars reported stolen, but buyers had no quick, free way to find out if the car had been stolen before buying it.

Dennis Gehle, general manager of Raleigh Scrap Metal Recycling on Garner Road, said the new system has disadvantages as well as advantages.

One downside is that using it adds a few minutes to the process. Customers wait in line with engines idling as the system checks the loads in front of them.

“That’s when people get aggravated,” Gehle said.

Raleigh Scrap Metal Recycling uses two systems to check for theft. Even before the new state system came online, it paid a fee to Auto Data Direct, a company that accesses title information from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The national system, Gehle said, covers vehicles that the state system doesn’t.

“Some of them are out-of-state, so they won’t come up,” he said.

Gehle said the instant knowledge is worth the potential loss of a few customers.

“It’s kind of nice to know that you didn’t have a stolen vehicle and have someone coming after you,” he said. “We would prefer to have it legitimate, even if it costs us business. We still believe that honesty is the best policy.”

The North Carolina law that created the new system gives state-level teeth to federal laws, according to Ward, the industry association president. Previously, he said local authorities had no way to enforce the laws on vehicle scrap reporting. Now, the new state law forces salvage yards and recyclers to register for the system or face audits and possibly felony charges.

Ward said salvage yards and metals recyclers have given “really good cooperation” to the DMV.

“By and large, everyone is very pleased,” he said. “I honestly think that it couldn’t have gone any better for the first month.”

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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