LAWRENCE, Nassau County, N.Y. — Ten managers and salesmen at two Lawrence dealerships were charged on July 23 with scheme to defraud and grand larceny. The employees of Universal Auto World and Victory Toyota were found out during the course of a murder investigation, according to Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. She said that the scheme was hatched to help drug dealers, pimps and gang members buy luxury cars and keep their names off motor vehicle records.
"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.
Nassau police began investigating the dealerships after the 2007 shooting death of Collin Thomas, a salesman at Universal Auto. The case remains unsolved. The D.A.'s office is also investigating a link between the Thomas slaying and a car stolen from another area dealership that was used in the 2007 shooting of two New York City police officers.
County officials unearthed the multi-pronged scheme, which they say 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 other two stolen identity cases.
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.
Both strategies were used to sell cars to people who were willing to pay for them but wanted to avoid having their names on motor vehicle documents that could be used to track them.
Investigators also found some employees at Victory Toyota tricked car buyers into buying extended warranties and anti-theft equipment, inflating 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.