🔒There’s so much more to bonded titles: Amy Davis breaks it all down for KPRC 2 Insiders

Here’s what you need to know about Texas, fraud, guarding against scammers and how you could change things for Texans

HOUSTONThis is a transcript of the video in the player above.

If you watched our story on clone cars and the problem with bonded titles in the state of Texas, I’ve got a lot more to share with you so I wanted to sort of break down our investigation and tell you how we started our investigation and all the twists and turns it led us on.

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I received an email from Kenneth Davis. He’s the main character, the main victim in our story because he had seen our paper tags stories. We’ve done a lot of stories on those fraudulent temporary license plates all over Texas roadways. He saw that and he was like, “Hey I saw that investigation, you should know about this. Someone was able to get a title from my vehicle that I already have a title on and own outright and I paid full cash for this vehicle. Someone was able to also get a title on it.”

What it meant, if you watched the story, is that when Kenneth Davis went to trade in his vehicle, to try to get another car, he was unable to because the dealership went and did some research and came back and said, “We see that title you have in your hand that has your name on it that says this vehicle is titled to you, but when we look in the system, we also see that it’s registered to someone else – another woman who lives in Spring.” So Kenneth was like, “What the heck?”

And he asked us to investigate. That is where our investigation started. And what we learned, first of all, I didn’t even know what a bonded title was or is, so let’s start there. The reason bonded titles for vehicles exist is somebody may have lost it or maybe your grandfather has had an antique car or a vehicle that they hand down to you and they pass on, you don’t have the title, he doesn’t know where it is. In order to get license plates and registration and insurance on that vehicle, you have to get a title. And so how you do that is you apply with the DMV for a bonded title. Normally, what is supposed to happen, according to the state, is you have to take that vehicle to the local police agency – if you’re in Harris County, there’s a specific place you’d go to do a VIN verification where law enforcement officers go and look at the vehicle. They ask you questions, they run the VIN to make sure that it doesn’t come back to any reports that it’s been stolen or that there are any liens on the vehicle. And so they do that whole process and then they give you their VIN verification report, so that you can turn it in with your application to the DMV. So it assures the DMV that nobody else has claim to this title, that they’re about to give a bonded title on, right? So that’s supposed to be the check, then make sure that two titles are not issued for the same vehicle. What we discovered in this case is that the DMV told us no, the reason that nobody had to do a VIN verification on this clone car -- on this car that looked exactly like the victim’s – so Kenneth Davis owned a 2015 BMW 535 -- the person who took out a bonded title had a 2015 BMW 535 same color, but a different VIN, obviously. But they used the VIN of Kenneth Davis’ car to get a bonded title. So on paper, that person owns Kenneth Davis’ car. If the person is involved in a hit-and-run, runs tolls, and anybody runs their license plate, it’s tied to the VIN that goes back to Kenneth Davis’ car, right? And so police are going to come knocking on his door if it’s involved in a crime, if it’s used as a getaway vehicle, it comes back to him, so this is the problem, this is why law enforcement agencies and the state why they use VINs and why they need titles to know who owns what vehicle and so that car has a history that you can look up and see what all has happened with that vehicle – that’s one of the reasons.

So what we learned is that the DMV said, because Kenneth’s car already had a record – already existed in the DMV’s database they didn’t need to do a VIN verification. So what they said – they clarified that the law in Texas only requires law enforcement officers to do a VIN verification on a vehicle that’s needing a bonded title if that vehicle is coming from out of state, or if there is no record of that vehicle in the state’s database. Now what does that tell you? What that tells you, and what was so shocking to me is that anybody could come, write down, jot down the VIN of my vehicle when they walk past in a public parking lot, in a shopping center parking lot, they write down my VIN, they can walk in the DMV and apply for a bonded title and nobody will make sure that they are actually in possession of my van, of my vehicle, because the law doesn’t require them to. So it’s a little bit crazy that there aren’t these checks and balances.

We don’t know exactly how big of a problem this is because the Department of Motor Vehicles could only tell us that it has done about 65,000 – I have the exact number – it has issued about 65,000 bonded titles in the state of Texas – 65,677 bonded titles issued in the state of Texas in 2021. In 2020, they only issued 42,227. So they issued about 23,000 more in 2021 over 2020. But what they don’t know is how many of those bonded titles did not require a law enforcement VIN verification. So we don’t know how many of them could possibly be fraudulent. We’re not sure. They’re not tracking that, but we spoke with Joel Olvera who owns Surety Bonds business and he said, “I can tell you that at least one to three people come into my office every day with a stolen vehicle that they’re trying to get a bonded title for.” Not all of those people are criminals. Some of those people have been duped into buying a stolen car on OfferUp or Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. They buy the vehicle. The person selling it to them says, “I’ve lost the title” or “I don’t have the title, but you could easily get a bonded title.” So that’s exactly what happened in this case.

Let me walk you back a little bit. The clone car that looked exactly like Kenneth Davis’ car – the 2015 black BMW 535 that looked just like his with a different VIN -- had been stolen from a repair shop in Sharpstown in December of 2020. So it was stolen, reported as stolen, that’s the first victim. He lost his car when he took it in for repairs. Someone listed that car for sale on OfferUp. They listed it for $2,500. It’s actually worth closer to like $15,000 so, you know $15,000 or $20,000, so had the person actually thought about that, that’s a red flag, maybe a warning sign that something was up with this vehicle. But the person who purchased it thought (it was a) great deal. They met the people selling it in an apartment complex parking lot on the southwest side near Sharpstown, gave them cash for it and the sellers said, “I don’t have a title, but here’s a piece of paper, that shows you the VIN on this vehicle. You just take this to the DMV and tell them that you need a bonded title for this VIN.” What that driver didn’t do, what that buyer didn’t do is take this VIN and make sure it was actually the VIN on the vehicle that they were buying. She just took their word for it. She applied for a bonded title, using this VIN which was actually the VIN for Kenneth Davis’ vehicle, so she never learned that her vehicle, which she had purchased was stolen until HPD Auto Theft Task Force investigators came knocking at her door. And you know what they do when they come knocking at your door, and you find out you’re in possession of a stolen car, they confiscate it. That woman lost all of the money that she had paid for the vehicle, $2,500, all of the money that she had paid to get the bonded title – because to get a bonded title you have to pay about one-and-a-half percent of the vehicle’s value. You’re paying a bond. She lost that, she lost all the money she had paid to insure the vehicle and all the money she had paid to get it registered with the state, but what was most shocking to us is that she was allowed to register it with the state – that the DMV processed two titles, two license plates to one VIN. So as far as the state knew, they were giving two license plates to the same vehicle. How did that happen? They were never able to actually explain that, but they say that their fallback or sort of catch that was supposed to happen is that if their systems discover that one VIN has two different license plates, then they’re supposed to send a letter to both people that have that car registered to both people with those license plates and say, “Hey, we have two titles, two registrations for the same VIN, so we need you both to report to the DMV and then the DMV would send them to HPD or whatever jurisdiction they were in for a VIN verification and police have to sort out who does this vehicle actually belong to.” That never happened in Kenneth Davis’ case. Kenneth Davis never got a letter, the victim who bought the stolen car says she never received a letter. And the DMV couldn’t explain to us why or how that had happened or who they sent the letter to.

One viewer asked “How the heck did they get his VIN? And should we be covering our VINs so that people can’t be stealing it in a parking lot.” I asked the detectives that very same question – how they could get his VIN any number of ways, anytime you’re shopping for a car online from any dealership, they usually list the VIN along with the Carfax vehicle history or they post the VIN so you can do your own VIN check and run it. So anybody could have been shopping online and saw Kenneth Davis’ vehicle VIN from when it was on sale before he purchased it or they might have picked it up in a parking lot, they may have stolen this one from the Sharpstown repair shop and then knew, we have to find a clean VIN for a 2015 BMW 535. It could have happened either one of those ways.

Now the next question, should we be covering out VIN numbers so that people can’t see them in parking lots – the officer said there’s a lot of good reasons for exposing and showing your VIN too; for example, if your car is stolen, or towed from a parking lot or street, the wrecker driver uses your VIN, writes it down, to call in to local law enforcement to tell them, “Hey I’m towing this vehicle and here’s where I’m taking it,” so when you come out and you can’t find your car, and you call police, that’s the record and that’s how you find where you need to go to pick your vehicle up. So if your VIN is covered, you’re going to have a lot harder time finding your car if it’s towed. That’s just one reason.

So I know I cover stories like this a lot, a lot of auto stories things dealing now with fraudulent paper plates, and I think what I want people to know is that these scammers, these thieves, these people who are coming up with these crimes of ways to trick law enforcement – I mean the trick behind this right, is that a thief could easily steal a vehicle and make money off of it, and somebody – it turns that car – by being able to get a legitimate title, a legitimate metal plates, that when an officer runs those plates behind you, say they’re following you and they run your plate, it’s going to come back to a 2015 black BMW and they’re not going to know the vehicle was stolen unless they stop you and they run the VIN and then they’re like, “Holy cow this is a stolen car.” So it’s basically turning stolen vehicles into legitimate cars.

And so what I want people to know is that thieves – and you guys kind of know this – are always one step ahead of certainly state laws, certainly rules, the protections that are put into place, they’re always finding ways and loopholes and flaws in those to defeat the system and perpetrate crimes. So what officers wanted people to know in this case is that there are a lot of stolen cars out there for sale right now on places like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, OfferUp, and because there are fewer and fewer cars you could buy at actual dealerships and traditional car lots, a lot of people are buying cars this way.

So they say there’s some things you can do to protect yourself to make sure you’re not buying a stolen car – one is check the VIN. You can go in, there are a lot of private sites you can go in the DMV’s website and you can pay about 10 bucks to type in the VIN of a vehicle you’re looking to buy and find out if it’s been reported stolen, how many owners it’s had. It’ll give you the history of the vehicle identification number. Two, like the woman did, if you’re looking to buy a vehicle posted on one of these online sites, and you ask the seller, hey what’s the VIN and you run it, don’t trust that when you pick up that vehicle or you go to pay for it, that they gave you the VIN that’s actually on the vehicle. Then you want to go, when you see the vehicle in person and make sure that the VIN that you checked is the VIN on the vehicle, right, so that you have the complete history of the vehicle that you’re actually buying. Something that Sgt. Tracy Hicks with the HPD Auto Theft Task Force told me, which I thought this is great information is that one way that thieves are able to steal cars – they may steal them from dealerships, they may steal them from valets, I mean, they’re not doing a lot of damage to these cars to get them because they can’t sell them as easy if they have damage that has to be fixed, they can take the key fobs and there’s easy ways – we’ve done stories on this – and all the crooks know about it – to reprogram a key fob so that it works and it’ll start any car. Right, but did you know that most key fobs have tucked in them inside the actual key fob is like a safety an emergency key – an old-school key – so you need to open that fob, take out that key and find out does that key start that car. They said if they key doesn’t start the car, and work on every lock in the vehicle, the passenger door, the back door, the trunk, the tailgate if it’s a truck, then, Sgt. Hicks said, nine times out of 10, that means that vehicle is stolen and walk away. He said there should never really be any reason somebody sells a vehicle without a title and a lot times he said the excuse they’ll give buyers is well, I still owe money on this truck, so the lender still holds the title on this truck, but as soon as you give me the this $3,000 or whatever, I’m going to go to the bank, make the final payment, then I’ll get the title and in a couple of days I’ll meet you again and I’ll give it to you. And he said there’s never a second meeting. You give the money and they’re gone and there’s no way to get in touch with them. He said if they don’t have the title or they can’t find the title, then you say, OK, great, call me when you get it, but until then I’m not going to buy the vehicle without it. So those are the main takeaways. Make sure that the key – one key fits in all of the locks.

And you know, there may be a legitimate reason that it doesn’t, make sure they have a title. There could be a legitimate reason that they don’t. And then run the VIN verification check. Make sure that it’s not stolen. Sgt. Hicks said, you know, maybe one of those three things doesn’t pan out, maybe they legitimately don’t have a title but the key works on all the locks, you run the VIN and it doesn’t come back as stolen, and that’s OK, but if you get two or three of those red flags – of those things that don’t pan out – don’t buy the car.

And one way that this could be changed is – it’s going to take a change in the law that basically says, that every car applying for a bonded title must get a VIN verification from law enforcement. And that’s going to take a change in the law. So it would take us contacting our state representatives and congress people to make this change so that that could happen.

I hope you have enjoyed this story. If you’ve got any questions for me, you could always email me at adavis@kprc.com.

About the Author

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.

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