Bogus insurance. Fraudulent registrations. Stolen cars disguised and resold to unsuspecting customers.
Those were some of the tactics prosecutors say were used by dozens of people and three corporations in what they described as an auto-theft and insurance-fraud ring that operated in Philadelphia for years.
"This was a massive criminal enterprise," District Attorney Seth Williams said Wednesday as he announced charges against 32 people.
Assistant District Attorney Linda Montag, who oversaw the investigation, described the ring as "a detailed, intricate criminal organization with many moving parts," allowing coconspirators to generate tens of thousands of dollars in profits.
Jihad Miller, 26, of Yeadon, and Preston Thomas, 37, of Philadelphia, were accused of heading the enterprise and faced dozens of counts each, including conspiracy, theft, and belonging to a corrupt organization. Their attorneys declined to comment Wednesday.
The others face a variety of related counts, and Montag said about half were expected to plead guilty. Some accused of lesser crimes may be accepted into a probationary program, she said.
Authorities said Miller and Thomas ran a company called Cheap Auto, buying inexpensive salvaged vehicles from online auctions.
The men would then strip the vehicle identification numbers from the salvaged cars, prosecutors said, and slap them onto other vehicles that they recruited people to steal.
The men and their coconspirators also created or fraudulently obtained documentation, such as titles and registrations, prosecutors said. Part of the scheme involved mechanics who illegally passed cars through "enhanced inspections," allowing the vehicles to hit the road despite carrying a mismatched VIN, said Philadelphia Police Detective Jack Logan of the Major Crimes Auto Squad.
Designated sellers - including Miller and Thomas - would then market the seemingly legitimate cars to unknowing buyers, authorities said. While the salvaged VINs were typically purchased for less than $2,000, the stolen cars often sold for up to $20,000, prosecutors said.
In total, according to Williams, the organization resold 45 cars, most of them stolen from rental companies including Hertz, Enterprise, Avis, and Dollar/Thrifty. Authorities said the scheme cost the rental companies more than $500,000, and resulted in more than $60,000 in bogus insurance claims.
Some new owners of the stolen cars also had to surrender their vehicles to police, authorities said. Montag said she hoped restitution would eventually cover their costs.
All but one of the 32 people charged has been arrested, Williams said. The final conspirator, Karriem Upshur, fraudulently registered 17 vehicles with fake insurance policies, prosecutors say. Anyone with information on his whereabouts is asked to contact Logan at 215-685-9137 or Detective Patrick Gleason at 215-686-8737.