The underworld masterminds of one of Britain’s largest ever car cloning rackets made £1million selling stolen vehicles on the second-hand car market.
Ashley Halstead, 40, and Timothy Ellor, 33, ‘disguised’ vehicles using legitimate details from similar models and hawked them online via Auto Trader and eBay, a Manchester court heard.
Unsuspecting buyers duped by the elaborate scam answered adverts and bought the affordable cars, only to discover they had been stolen.
Police discovered Halstead and Ellor ran a network of criminals in ‘three tiers.’ The crooked pair ‘managed’ the list of stolen cars, while a sub-team posed as ‘sellers’ and a third allowed the stolen vehicles to be sold at their addresses.
Each car had its number plates changed and new registration numbers used in adverts on market places so prospective buyers could make HPI checks.
The gang also used blank V5 vehicle registration documents and blank road tax discs stolen from post offices, personal details of innocent people, forged MOT certificates, faked receipts of previous sales of the cars and even a bogus service history.
Ben East, 37, whose Land Rover Freelander was stolen during a burglary at his home in Didsbury, Manchester, was shocked to find out it had been sold to innocent dairy farmer Adrian Bland who lives 150 miles in Cumbria.
Mr Bland, 40, saw the car advertised on the Auto Trader website and went to see it at a house in Rochdale. He paid £11,500 for the Land Rover after innocently believing all the forged documentation to be genuine, including the vehicle identification number matching the chassis number in the windscreen.
Detectives traced more than 60 cars valued at a total of £571,718, which had been stolen and cloned including BMWs, Audis, VWs and a Mitsubishi pick-up truck.
Of these, 39 had been sold to innocent buyers, who paid a total of £280,000. Police estimate the racket earned the gang more than £1m.
Halstead was today jailed for four years at Minshull Street Crown Court while Ellor was given two years and four months after they pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal and convert criminal property. Sixteen accomplices are due to be sentenced later.
Father-of-two Mr Bland said after the case: ‘I remember my wife saying at the time the price was too good to be true and she was right. But he said he had gone through a really bitter divorce and he didn’t want his wife finding out.
‘He seemed genuine, I took the details of the registration and when I ran them passed the AA, they said it all appeared legitimate and above board.
‘I had heard of people buying stolen cars at the pubs but we met this guy at what I thought was his home, so I didn’t question it. It was only when I sent the registration document to the DVLA I found out it had been stolen and cloned.
‘Police removed the spare wheel, the boot lining and showed me the chassis number that didn’t match the vehicle. I was absolutely furious and I felt so sick.
‘I was livid that somebody had got one over me and that I had been so naive. Last year, I was employing a lad to work on the farm and since this, I’ve had to cut his hours and take on more hours myself – even though I already work a 12-hour day. I’ve had no choice financially.’
Mr East, 37, a freelance journalist, said: ‘I do feel sorry for the guy that bought it because I imagine on Auto Trader it looked like a great deal.
‘We felt we couldn’t get the same car again because after it was stolen, what’s to stop them coming back thinking the same car would be there again. We were also really scared that we were being watched.’
Police said Ellor, of Hyde, would be told a stolen car was ‘available’ so he knew the make, model and specification.
He would then obtain the identities of similar models from a number of ‘sources’ including the internet, or even from cars he spotted on the street. He would then pass these identities on to others so the true identity of the car was disguised.
Ellor also carried out car history checks by phone and put adverts on to online market places. Halstead, of Rochdale would be told about cars that had been stolen and was known to sell some of them on, for profit.
Supt Neil Evans from Greater Manchester Police said: ‘The tragedy here was that for every vehicle involved, there were numerous victims throughout the process.
‘We have come across some tragic stories, such as victims of burglary who felt violated, people whose identities were hijacked, and those who saved up to buy the car that they needed, only to find themselves badly out of pocket.
‘Today’s outcome is the culmination of a sensitive, large-scale and thoroughly planned police operation into an organised criminal network. In short, these people made money from burglaries.
‘We urge prospective buyers of cars to always use bankers draft rather than cash, and we also want to make it clear that if a price looks too good to be true, there is every chance that it is.’
Mark Angus, Senior Crown Prosecutor said: ‘There were many victims of this gang – the owners who had their cars stolen and the innocent purchasers who bought the vehicles in good faith.
‘These are serious crimes that have a significant impact on victims in all sorts of ways.’
A spokesman from Auto Trader said: ‘Buyers should approach all online purchases with caution and assure themselves that they have enough information about a seller to be confident in a transaction before they part with their money.’
Kristian Welch, Consumer Director for HPI said: ‘Sadly, the cloning of cars is a common practice used by organised crime groups to hide the identity of stolen vehicles.’
A spokesman for CDL Vehicle Information Services (which owns MyCarCheck.com and MyTextCheck) said: ‘The sums involved show that this was ‘big business’, highly organised crime. Demands for ‘cash only’ should always set the alarm bells ringing.’