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Two New York Dealerships Caught in Financial Scam

July 28, 2008

LAWRENCE, New York -- Ten car dealership employees involved in a financial scam were charged on July 23 with scheme to defraud and grand larceny, reported Newsday.

The financial scheme, which operated out of Lawrence, N.Y.-based Universal Auto World and Victory Toyota, was uncovered during a murder investigation, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said. The scheme allegedly helped drug dealers, pimps and gang members buy luxury cars and keep their names off motor vehicle records.

Ten managers and salesmen, and Universal Auto have been charged. Most defendants, including the dealership, were charged with scheme to defraud, as well as grand larceny and other charges.

Nassau police began probing the dealerships after the 2007 shooting death of Collin Thomas, a salesman at Universal Auto. Rice's office is also investigating a link between the Thomas slaying and a car stolen from another Five Towns dealership that was used in the 2007 shooting of two New York City police officers. Thomas' death remains unsolved.

"This investigation started with a murder and eventually led the police department and my office into a tangled web of financial schemes and bogus identities," Rice said.

The multi-pronged scheme involved identity theft, the sale of identities and tricking customers into buying car equipment in order to get loans.

Identities stolen from four people, including a Bay Shore woman and a West Hempstead man, were used to buy 10 cars, Rice said. It appears the victims did not lose any money. The name of the Bay Shore woman, whose bank discovered the problem, was used to buy $250,000 worth of cars, including a $100,000 Maserati. The West Hempstead man discovered the scam when he ran a credit check on himself; investigators found the two other stolen identity cases.

The cars were given to people who paid for them but avoided having their names on motor vehicle documents that can be used to track people.

Another part of the scam involved the purchase of identities from people who agreed to be "straw buyers." They received cash or checks and let their names be used to buy 20 cars. "They did not care who was driving these cars and they didn't care whose identities were at stake," Rice said.

Investigators also found some employees at Victory Toyota tricked car buyers into buying extended warranties and anti-theft equipment -- pumping up vehicle prices and sales commissions.

Dennis Cirillo, operations manager of Victory Toyota of the Five Towns, said the dealership was itself a victim of its three arrested employees.

"The allegations that they're making, I believe are true, unfortunately," said Cirillo, whose brother owns the dealership. "We're truly victims in this thing."

He said employees charged in the scam no longer work at Victory. The investigation found 25 instances in which employees at Victory illegally adjusted loan rates or financial information, stole cash deposits or added car accessories onto car prices to increase sales and commissions.

In order to compensate victims, Victory has allowed customers who were duped to return their cars and pay back loans or keep the vehicles and renegotiate the loans. Additionally, some customers have received refunds for nonessential equipment purchased during the scams.

Stephen Singer, a Queens attorney who represents Christ Tsiropoulos of Bellmore, the co-owner of Universal Auto who has been charged in the scheme, said only: "We have yet to take a plea." He wouldn't discuss the false identity scam.

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