International scam: identity theft of Mountainair business

An international scam by Russians has ties to Mountainair, as people from Canada, the Netherlands and all over the United States have been bilked out of tens of thousands of dollars.

Steve Ivey retired last year, and closed up shop on Alpine Motors, a business that had belonged to his father Carl before him. When he closed the doors on the auto dealership, Ivey never imagined he would continue to get phone calls from people about buying cars.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Alpine Motors closed in May 2017. Starting around March this year, Ivey started hearing from people who had tracked him down in Mountainair, and who thought they were purchasing a car from him.

“Our family was in business in Mountainair for 32 years, and I retired in May of 2017,” Ivey said. “We had an excellent reputation, and I thought I was going to ride off into the sunset and enjoy retirement.”

Ivey said somebody assumed his identity online, using his photo, his name, his now-inactive dealer license number and other information to “create a phony website” that even used a similar email to that of Alpine Motors. That phony website was advertising on various online platforms like autotrader.com, cargurus.com, Yelp, Facebook, Craigslist and others. “What they were doing is drawing people in with their website, getting them to send money and scamming them out of their money,” Ivey said.

Mountainair Police Chief Alfredo Turrieta said all told he has heard of 25 to 30 cases, and said the case is being handled by law enforcement agencies around the country, and ultimately, the FBI. It was the FBI who told the chief that there was at least one scammer who was Russian, Turrieta said.

“Most paid the car off in full, for $25,000 to $50,000,” Turrieta said.

Mountainair Police Department has had roughly five police reports filed on the matter, Turrieta said.

Ivey said people were tracking him down by calling other Mountainair businesses. Those businesses—and the bank in town—have been alerted to the scam in case of future calls.

At the peak of activity in May and June, Ivey said he was getting two or three calls a week. With Netflix shooting a movie in town recently, one day Ivey got a call from the production team, which was using his building in the shoot. “I got a call from the movie people, saying ‘some guy needs to talk to you about a car.’ He came down from Cannon City, Colorado, near Denver,” Ivey said. “He had a copy of an invoice and had already paid $43,000. … We called the police and made a report. He drove back home to Colorado with no car and minus $43,000.”

He got a letter from a bank that was trying to do a loan for a vehicle. “We stopped that one,” Ivey said, adding that he heard from people in South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Florida, as well as Canada and Europe.

Ivey thinks he has been able to stop eight or 10 people who called to get more information.

Both Ivey and Turrieta said they’ve been told by the FBI that the name and location of at least one of the scammers is in Tennessee, but that the case is part of a larger investigation, with no arrests made so far. Ivey estimates that the scammers have been paid $250,000.

Ivey said he and his father, who had been Mountainair’s mayor in the 1990s, “were old school, selling cars with no credit checks on a handshake,” but the experience has made him more cynical about trusting people.

“[Steve Ivey] is wonderful and honest—my husband bought his truck from him when I first got the pharmacy, and I got my Subaru from him two years ago,” said K.C. West, who owns Mountainair Meds & More. “I told him what I wanted and he got it to specifications and at a great price.” She described Ivey as “very honest and dependable.”

“I’m frustrated because while I don’t think I’m criminally responsible, but we built this good reputation and now somebody’s destroying our name and ripping people off,” Ivey said. “The feds can’t track down that IP address. They said they know their names, know where they are, but it’s part of a bigger ongoing investigation.”

One red flag was the prices of the high-end cars posted on the phony website, Ivey said, describing an $80,000 Maserati offered for $50,000. “I’m sure that preys on people’s greed, thinking they better act quickly, it’s a deal,” Ivey said. “They were sending checks. … It’s a helpless feeling to watch people get scammed for what for some people would be huge amounts of money.”

Ivey said the N.M. Dealer Licensing Bureau told him that the scam has happened to others, too.

“In 32 years, I don’t think we had one consumer complaint filed against us,” Ivey said, saying that he hates answering the phone “to have to listen to their story and have to tell them they just got taken.” He added, “At certain times, we can all be vulnerable, and trust somebody. They were being misled and being taken. I felt terrible but I didn’t know how to stop it, I have to let the police sift through it. I don’t know the final outcome but it seems to have ended.”

Ivey said he last got a phone call on a car about three weeks ago. “I used to say I’d give anyone a chance—now I say don’t trust anyone til you know who they are. It’s a different world now.”