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FBI breaks up $25 million 'car cloning' ring

  • Story Highlights
  • FBI to announce 17 arrests in huge "car cloning" scam
  • Under scam, VINs, other details taken from legal car, given to similar stolen model
  • In one case, owner lost truck but was still saddled with payments
  • Ring stretched from Chicago to Florida to central Mexico
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By Rich Phillips
CNN Senior Producer
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TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- There's probably no way to describe the feeling.

Joe Pirrone's pride and joy, his F350 Super Duty turbo diesel truck, turned out to be a stolen "clone."

Joe Pirrone's pride and joy, his F350 Super Duty turbo diesel truck, turned out to be a stolen "clone."

One moment, Guiseppe "Joe" Pirrone was on a long weekend at the beach.

The next moment, he found out the pickup that he bought a year ago is stolen, and he is still on the hook for the $27,000 loan.

Stories like Pirrone's are scattered across the country, and Tuesday the FBI announced that it has broken up one of the largest auto theft cases in the U.S.

Capping "Operation Dual Identity," arrest warrants for 17 people were executed in Tampa and Miami, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico. The suspects were accused of "cloning" vehicles, which is making stolen cars look like legal ones.

The FBI says that the ring was operating in the U.S. for more than 20 years. More than 1,000 vehicles were stolen in Florida, with more than $25 million in losses to consumers and banks.

"Individuals have been victimized at every level, from the average Joe, to the banks, to big companies," said Dave Couvertier, of the FBI's Tampa field office.

Car theft rings clone vehicles by taking license plates, vehicle identification numbers (VIN), and other tags and stickers from a legal car and putting them on a stolen vehicle of similar make and model.

"This does not just affect big business. Anyone could become an unwitting victim of this particular scam. It could happen to anyone," said Couvertier.

Pirrone knows how it was done because it happened to him.

Last year, he bought a used 2005 F350 Super Duty turbo diesel pickup to use for his landscape business in Fort Myers, Florida. He bought it off a small used car lot and took out a $27,000 loan from a credit union.

"I had it for about nine months. It was a great truck," he told CNN.

In the fall, Pirrone decided to drive across the state to spend a long weekend in Fort Lauderdale. He was lying on the beach when his father called him to tell him that a detective from the Lee County Sheriff's Office was at his house with a tow truck. Pirrone got back in his car and drove back home immediately.

"I was confused, honestly," he said. "I had to ask the detective for credentials. I didn't believe what was going on."

Pirrone said the detective explained to him that he was the victim of a scam, that he was sold stolen goods.

Left without a truck, Pirrone called the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union. He found that his $536 a month payment would live on after his truck was long gone.

Pirrone said he was able to get a 30-day payment exemption, but was told that he had a signed agreement with the bank, and he was still obligated to pay the loan in full.

"I am making payments on a piece of property that I don't have," Pirrone said. "They can't even repossess it. The bank doesn't have any help to offer me."

The bank is a victim in the car cloning scam as well. Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, told CNN that the company never discusses private information about any of its members.

"It is a police matter, and it's nothing we can make any substantial comment on," she said.

Pirrone has hired an attorney, and he is considering filing a lawsuit against the dealership to get the bank's money back. Pirrone said he was advised by his lawyer not to name the used car lot.

Law enforcement hopes that this is the beginning of the end of the "car cloning" scam. The National Motor Vehicle Information system (NMVTIS) database was implemented in January. It allows state DMVs to share title and registration information.

Cloned vehicles were moved and sold to buyers in 20 states and several countries, often for less than market value, the FBI said.

Many of the vehicles were exchanged for drugs, according to the bureau.

The FBI says that people need to be careful when buying a car independently.

"Folks should be educated enough so that they don't buy a car from a stranger, on the street, or in a back alley somewhere," said the FBI's Dave Couvertier. "And if you're getting it for too good a deal, it should be raising flags."

Like so many others, Pirrone is feeling the economic squeeze. Without a truck, he had to sell his landscaping business, which he had as a side business. He is still working his other job as a restaurant manager.

"It's not a good time for this to happen. I've had hours cut back at work, I'm not making what I used to make."

"I don't know what's real anymore," he said.

CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this story.

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