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Words you don't want to hear: 'That's my car'

He paid for a hot car and got a legal mess.

By IVAN PENN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2007


Add to the dance with used car dealers another disturbing twist: How do you know the car you're buying hasn't been stolen?

Gerald Newman wishes he'd had more details about the 1970 Ford Mustang he bought from Golden Classics of Clearwater before he paid $24,000 for it.

He bought it in December 2004, but it turns out that a thief had stolen it seven years earlier, outside a DoubleTree hotel in Somerset County, N. J.

Police confiscated it from Newman when it was discovered that it was not his.

Now Newman - out his money and the car - wants Golden Classics to give him a full refund, but the car dealer has refused. Golden Classics says it, too, is a victim and is willing to share the loss but not absorb it all.

The dispute, now in Pinellas Circuit Court, highlights the vulnerability consumers have when buying secondhand property. All parties in the case, including the man who sold the car to Golden Classics, are spending thousands in lawyer fees to resolve it.

"I'm the victim," said the 48-year-old Newman of Niagara Falls, Ontario. "I should be refunded in full. They both sold a stolen car. I never sold a stolen car."

Daniel Newcombe, owner of Golden Classics, said Newman has been offered a settlement that would allow him to recover two-thirds of his money. The car dealer would pay $8,000 and the man who sold it to Golden Classics would pay $8,000.

"We're all victims here," said Newcombe, a car dealer for 40 years. "We did everything correctly."

Little protection

Unlike with home purchases, consumers do not get title insurance on their cars. So it leaves consumers vulnerable.

"You don't have a lot of protection," said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. "It's buyer beware and the reputation of the dealer you're buying from."

Since 2003, Golden Classics has had a dozen complaints filed against it at the Better Business Bureau and three others with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services for advertising, sales practices, refund or exchange issues.

The bureau has given Golden Classics a seller of classic, muscle, antique, collector and exotic cars an "unsatisfactory record" due to unanswered complaints.

Newman was on vacation when he walked into Golden Classics in December 2004 and was captivated by a green 1970 Shelby Mustang.

Philip Sanzone of Staten Island, N.Y., had just brought the car in the same day and traded with Golden Classics for a Chevy Malibu.

Newman decided to ponder the purchase overnight. A car dealer himself, he knew he could not wait long or the car would be gone.

Altered ID number

In Canada he sells used cars, too, but his are less than 5 years old, not classics.

This car would be his own to drive and to use as a showpiece.

The next day he put down a $2,000 deposit. He paid the $22,000 balance when it was delivered to Buffalo, N.Y., and he took it home to Niagara Falls.

Some six months later, in June 2005, he displayed the Mustang at the Carlisle, Pa., All-Ford Nationals, the biggest event for old Ford cars. A man confronted Newman.

"That's my car," Newman recalls the man telling him.

They argued. Police were called.

Officers discovered the car's vehicle identification number had been altered and found the original number in another location on the car.

They confiscated it from Newman and returned it to the rightful owner, who had spent years traveling to car shows, hoping to spot his stolen car.

Now Newman, out $24,000 and the car, can't believe Golden Classics won't refund his money.

Sanzone, who traded the car to Golden Classics, said Newman should seek money from the restitution funds that the man held responsible for the theft has been ordered to pay.

That man, Robert Morris, sold the car to Sanzone, whosaid he didn't know it was stolen.

Morris, 45, was one of 10 defendants charged with operating a New York car theft ring that stole cars and car parts, ran chop shops and produced fraudulent vehicle titles for almost 20 years, including a fraudulent title for the VIN-altered Mustang.

Morris was convicted of mail fraud in connection with the case and sentenced in April to a federal prison term that runs through March 2008. He was ordered to pay $638,350 in restitution.

Who is victim?

Sanzone said Newman should be pursuing some of that money. "It's sad that we got involved in this," Sanzone said. "But there are probably a lot of cars out there ... a lot of stolen cars."

Newcombe, Golden Classics' owner, said his insurance company will not cover the loss because Newman is a dealer and the sale was a dealer-to-dealer transaction, not a sale to a regular consumer.

"We're all victims here," Newcombe said. "I shouldn't have to eat it all. I feel for him. Somebody's got to feel for me."

Newman said he believes Golden Classics is making whatever excuse it can to avoid responsibility. He said he bought the car as a consumer and kept it for personal use.

Carter Andersen, Newman's lawyer, said he does not believe Golden Classics would refund any consumer in a case like this.

"They're not paying Gerry because they don't have to," Anderson said. So they have been hashing out the dispute in court since August 2006. Sanzone and Golden Classics "both made a profit. There's only one victim today."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ivan Penn covers consumer issues and can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or 727-892-2332.

Fast facts

Before you buy

Nothing is guaranteed to protect you from buying a used car that turns out to be stolen, but here are some suggestions from the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services and the Florida Consumer Action Network:

- Run the vehicle identification number through www.carfax.com or a similar service on the Internet.

- Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to help check whether the title is clear.

- Check the reputation of the car dealer you are doing business with through the Better Business Bureau, consumer protection agencies and friends.

- If you feel you have been wronged, contact your consumer protection agency. In Pinellas, call (727) 464-6200; in Hillsborough call (813) 903-3430.