Export scammers’ gain is dealers’ pain
Feds seek headway against black-market rings
“This is a first of its kind prosecution, and I hope it will not be the last. These rings are far reaching,” said John Kacavas, the U.S. attorney for New Hampshire.
July 1, 2013 – 12:01 am ET
First it was a $70,000 Mercedes-Benz GL350. Then another one, followed by a BMW X6 and a Porsche Cayenne. All were paid for in cash.
Jane Goss, the town clerk and tax collector in tiny Sanbornton, N.H., realized something was fishy after a local man started coming into her office every few weeks to register high-end SUVs.
“I knew that he didn’t have the means to pay for these cars fully,” said Goss, who also noticed that the man never drove any of the vehicles to her office. “I don’t know of anybody in Sanbornton who can do that. By the fifth one, I said, ‘No, I can’t register this car.’”
Federal authorities say the man unwittingly had become part of a scheme that illegally exported thousands of luxury vehicles to China. In what has become a burgeoning black-market industry, exporters typically hire straw buyers in the United States and send vehicles overseas by claiming them as used on customs declarations. The buyers often never see the vehicles they claim to be purchasing for personal use.
High prices and heavy demand for luxury cars and SUVs in China, caused in part by 25 percent tariffs on imported new vehicles, mean scammers can often sell the vehicles for at least double what they would get in the United States. A new BMW X6 costs more than 1 million yuan in China, or about $171,500, compared with a U.S. starting price of $60,725; the Porsche Cayenne has a base price of 922,000 yuan, or about $148,750, in China, and $50,575 at U.S. dealerships.
Even after factoring in considerable shipping costs and other expenses, the exporters can make a huge profit on each vehicle by undercutting legitimate dealerships in China.
The schemes can cause big financial problems for U.S. dealerships, which are contractually prohibited from selling new vehicles to anyone who intends to export them and can be penalized by the automakers for doing so — even if they do so unwittingly.
Dealerships that sell to exporters may be forced to pay charge-backs, have incentives revoked and receive fewer vehicles from the factory in the future. Widespread fraudulent registrations also hurt dealerships that do not sell to exporters because such registrations understate the dealerships’ actual market shares, making it appear they are falling short of sales targets. That can affect bonuses paid by automakers as well as future allocations.
New Hampshire has been at the center of several large export schemes because it is the only state with neither a sales tax nor a requirement that vehicle owners carry insurance. Exporters maximize their profits by having vehicles titled there, even though many of the vehicles are bought elsewhere and never enter the state.
John Kacavas, the U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, recently announced that two California men pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud charges and violations of U.S. customs laws, in what officials say was the first successful prosecution of a major vehicle-exporting operation. The defendants admitted to scheming to export 93 vehicles worth more than $5.5 million that they and others bought in 16 states.
Authorities seized 14 of the vehicles at California’s Port of Long Beach and began forfeiture proceedings. The men, Frank Ku, 31, and Danny Hsu, 33, were fined $5,000 and sentenced to three years probation in May.
“This is a first of its kind prosecution, and I hope it will not be the last,” Kacavas told Automotive News, while declining to discuss investigations into any other operations. “These rings are far reaching. Some are operating on a scale much grander than Ku and Hsu.”
In the case, Kacavas said his office was more focused on trying to recover as many vehicles as possible and deterring additional exporting than sending Ku and Hsu to prison.
Court documents say Ku and Hsu found straw buyers by looking on Craigslist for ads posted by people who appeared to need money. Those buyers, who received “a few hundred dollars” for each vehicle they purchased, were not charged.
“Some of them were sort of hapless victims as far as we were concerned and not worthy of federal prosecution,” Kacavas said. “They made very little money from doing this.”
But for the exporters, he said, “it’s very lucrative.”
Ku and Hsu, who ran a company called CFLA, paid New Hampshire residents to use their addresses so they and other employees could falsely obtain local driver’s licenses. Court documents show they made some of the purchases themselves, in addition to using straw buyers, and in some cases they had an employee fly from California to pose as a straw buyer’s fiancee and handle all of the payment and paperwork.
• Ku and Hsu used Craigslist to find straw buyers and people who would let them use local addresses to obtain fake driver’s licenses.
• They or the straw buyers purchased high-end vehicles with checks from a local bank account. Straw buyers would earn several hundred dollars for each transaction.
• They applied for titles in New Hampshire, New Jersey and other states, claiming that each vehicle was for personal use and posing as the straw buyers when the Department of Motor Vehicles questioned the applications.
• Vehicles were shipped to the Port of Long Beach in California.
• After their titles were issued and forwarded to California, the vehicles were shipped overseas with export declarations that categorized them as used.
• When the vehicles got to China, Ku and Hsu delivered the vehicles to buyers who had ordered them in advance, often for more than double the U.S. price.
• They successfully exported 79 vehicles, and 14 more were seized in Long Beach. The average value of each vehicle was about $53,000.
Source: Court filings
Troopers issued warning
Goss, the clerk in Sanbornton, a town of about 3,000 people in the center of the state, said she had attended a class in which state troopers warned clerks to be on the lookout for suspicious registrations of high-end vehicles. The man she confronted started showing up about a year later, in late 2010.
When questioned by the town’s police chief, Stephen Hankard, the buyer readily acknowledged buying the SUVs for someone else and seemed unaware that he might be part of an illegitimate operation.
“He answered a Craigslist ad, and I think he honestly believed that what he was doing was legal,” Hankard said. “He seemed pretty confident in what he was saying.”
After alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in March 2011, Hankard said, “police chiefs from all over the place started calling me” because their clerks had noticed unusual vehicle purchases as well.
The Sanbornton buyer has not been charged with a crime. Information he gave customs agents helped lead Kacavas in May to charge a Chinese national, Hong Chen, who runs several businesses based in Maryland and Virginia, with mail fraud and misuse of export declarations.
Chen and his businesses are accused of illegally exporting nearly 3,000 vehicles worth more than $157 million — an average of about $53,000 each — from February 2008 through March 2013. About 40 vehicles being prepared for export were seized at the Port of Newark in New Jersey in April, documents show.
Chen was arrested in May, and a judge recently agreed to delay his trial until later this summer to allow for negotiations between prosecutors and his lawyer, who did not return a call seeking comment.
Detective Sgt. Andrew Player of the New Hampshire State Police said his agency has become more active in rooting out illegal vehicle exports, and legislators have discussed ways to make such crimes harder to pull off.
“It’s been going on for a while,” Player said. “We began to receive complaints from the automotive dealers themselves. They were concerned about what was going on and getting charge-backs.”
U.S. Customs regulations only allow new vehicles to be exported by their manufacturer, and still consider vehicles to be new if bought for resale purposes.
According to a deposition by the customs agent who investigated the Chen case, Mercedes-Benz USA has a policy allowing the company to impose the following penalties if it discovers that a vehicle was exported less than a year after being sold as new: “an administrative expense equal to 8.5 percent” of the suggested retail price, “any market support funds or special program discounts paid by MBUSA for that vehicle will be charged back” and “the dealership will lose one like-model unit on the next decade allocation.”
Paul Holloway, whose Holloway Automotive Group has two Mercedes-Benz stores and other dealerships in New Hampshire, said at an April news conference with Kacavas that his company had sustained losses “in the six figures” as a result of export schemes. “This is just a fraction of what’s going on,” Holloway’s partner, David Cushman, told the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper.
Court documents in the Chen case say a 2010 Mercedes GL350 BlueTEC was bought in October 2010 from Holloway Motor Cars of Manchester and shipped to China about a month later. They show that only one of the four SUVs and crossovers registered in Sanbornton was bought in New Hampshire, with the others coming from Mercedes-Benz dealerships near Boston and a Porsche dealership outside Syracuse, N.Y., more than 300 miles away.
The X6 was bought at a BMW dealership — directly across the street from a police station — that officials said also fell victim to Ku and Hsu’s scheme.
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