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ANCHORAGE - Some thieves in Anchorage have found that Alaska's vehicle registration laws make it fairly easy to fraudulently title cars and trucks, which can then be sold to unsuspecting buyers.
"At least that's what the criminals have told us," said Anchorage police Detective Steve Lyons.
In one case, retired truck driver George Dismukes spotted a 2001 Mitsubishi Montero at a park-and-sell lot. The selling price was much lower than the SUV was worth, Dismukes said, so he contacted the owner, Gregory P. Ruiz.
Ruiz had a title to the car that had been issued just a few days before. He told Dismukes he needed to sell it quickly because he had just been offered a job in Hawaii, according to charging documents and Dismukes.
Dismukes went to the bank and withdrew $22,000.
"I fell for it," Dismukes, 73, told the Anchorage Daily News.
A month later, police told him the Montero had been reported stolen in New York. The SUV was confiscated and its ownership is still in dispute.
The New Yorker who owned the Montero had given it to Ruiz so she could report it stolen and collect on the insurance, detective Jim Anderson said. The car was brought to Alaska, retitled in Ruiz's name using fraudulent paperwork, and then sold to Dismukes, according to police and court records.
Ruiz, 54, repeated the scam several times. He was sentenced to a year in prison after his conviction on a theft charge last year.
Police say Ruiz, like some other car thieves, lied on a one-page application, called the notification of impoundment and sale, and used the fraudulent paperwork to get title to the vehicles in his name, making it look like he owned them.
The application is available at the state Division of Motor Vehicles. It is a way legitimate towing companies can recover some costs for vehicles not claimed by their owners. The DMV has little way of knowing if most of the things the towing company swears to are true. And anyone can claim to be a towing company.
"It's not a hard thing for a dishonest person to get around what the current law is," said DMV registrar Carl Springer, who oversees the processing of hundreds of the applications each year.
If the vehicle in question is registered in Alaska, the DMV can check some of the information on the affidavit against its own records.
If the vehicle is registered Outside, the DMV cannot tell if it's been stolen or verify the registered owner or lien holders, unless something suspicious about the application spurs further investigation, Springer said.
The DMV used to have access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center database, which allowed nationwide checks for stolen cars and trucks, he said. In the 1990s, when the DMV moved out of the state Department of Public Safety, it was no longer considered part of a law enforcement agency and lost access to the exclusive database, he said.
The DMV hopes to be allowed to subscribe to the NCIC again. In the meantime, Springer said, it would be very labor intensive to call Alaska State Troopers every time a vehicle from Outside is retitled in Alaska to see whether it has been reported stolen.