25 Investigates: Cars with junk titles in other states are getting clean titles in Massachusetts

A low tech ruse designed to hide a car’s real history getting past RMV employees, lawsuit claims

BOSTON — Days after 25 Investigates first reported about a Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) employee fired for making fraudulent car titles, investigative reporter Ted Daniel learned about more title irregularities at the agency.

A tipster alerted him to a lawsuit that reveals multiple cases of “title washing” went unchecked at the RMV. The document, which we pulled from Suffolk County Superior Court, indicates Liberty Mutual is suing nine people from Massachusetts, most of them in the used car repair and sales business, for fraudulently inflating the value of badly damaged vehicles by obtaining illegal titles that hid the history of the cars.

The lawsuit lists the various vehicles in question, including their titles and vehicle identification numbers (VIN). By using a public database, 25 Investigates plugged in the VINs and was able to see the history of the vehicles. Our research confirmed all the cars, which were given the seal of approval by the MA RMV, had been written off as totaled in other states.

For example, a banged-up BMW sold at an insurance auction for $29,000. The luxury sports car, which had extensive damage, was issued a salvage title in California because the insurance company considered it a total loss. But 25 Investigates found it was registered here in Massachusetts after the RMV issued the vehicle a clear or clean title.

According to the RMV’s website, “A salvage title is permanent and a salvage vehicle can never be issued a clear title.”

With the salvage history scrubbed, the BMW’s insurance value nearly tripled to $78,000.

According to Liberty Mutual, the RMV failed to catch this blatant fraud. The lawsuit alleges the BMW was successfully registered and titled in Massachusetts after the individual who applied for a clean title submitted the old junk title with stickers that covered all references to the salvage brand. That pretty low-tech sticker ruse got past RMV employees, per the suit.

We wanted to know how hard it would be to determine if a title is clean or not, so we asked the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts. The bureau’s executive director Anthony DiPaolo told us it shouldn’t be difficult to verify the authenticity of a title.

“It just takes a little effort for people to find it,” he said.

DiPaolo, whose agency is not involved in the Liberty Mutual case, explained the dangers of title washing.

“If the damage is so extensive, you would not put that car back on the road because it’s defective. It’s lost its integrity, it’s lost its mechanisms. It wouldn’t be safe for that care to be driven,” he said.

The lawsuit also claims two other BMWs – another from California and one from Illinois, - a Maserati and Volkswagen from Texas, and an Aston Martin from Florida were all washed through the Massachusetts RMV.

Using the vehicle history report database badvin.org it was easy to determine that all the vehicles had salvage titles before they were registered in Massachusetts.

We asked the RMV how the agency checks a title’s history. An agency spokesperson said via email that an employee “visually inspects out of state titles” and screens title transactions through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).

According to an informational video 25 Investigates found on YouTube “federal law requires all states to use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.”

NMVTIS is an electronic database that records a vehicle’s history from state to state.

We provided the RMV with the VINs for the six vehicles listed in the lawsuit and asked why they were issued clean titles.

In an email, a spokesperson said: “The Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) remains vigilant in investigating any potentially fraudulent transactions brought to its attention and improving processes to mitigate such actions.”

According to Liberty Mutual’s lawsuit, one of the defendants got three separate checks totaling $268,000, after washing titles through the RMV and filing new total loss insurance claims.

Title washing is a felony. We asked the office of Attorney General Maura Healey if there’s a criminal investigation, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

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