Johnson County officials are cracking down on an increasing number of attempts to use fraudulently obtained vehicle titles at the Treasurer's Office.
The Treasurer's Office used to catch about one person a year trying to use a stolen or fraudulent car title to take ownership of a stolen vehicle, County Treasurer Tom Kriz said. Now, they're catching about one a month.
The increase in fraudulent titles began three years ago, Kriz said, and has put county staff in a tough position as they try to spot them from among the 3,000 title transfers handled each month.
People who present fraudulent titles also have been creating a scene at the county administration building recently as police have been called to arrest those attempting to commit the fraud.
On Feb. 5, Tyson E Marshek, 30, of Iowa City, was arrested for allegedly trying to obtain a fraudulent title for a stolen 2011 Infiniti, according to online court documents.
Marshek was a part of a large auto theft ring based in Chicago, according to an email from Iowa Department of Transportation Investigator Matt Dingbaum. Marshek was charged with fraudulent practice, a class C felony, according to court records.
Marshek's goal, Dingbaum said in the email, was "to obtain Iowa license plates and registration which eventually end up on stolen cars which have had the vehicle identification numbers changed to match the plates and registration."
Treasurer's Office staff suspected the attempted fraud when Marshek produced a title from North Carolina, Kriz said. A staff member then called the North Carolina Department of Transportation and was told that the title number did not exist, Kriz said.
Deputy Treasurer Jim Pregon called the Johnson County Sheriff's Office for assistance, according to the email. As soon as a deputy arrived at the administration building, the driver of the car that had given Marshek a ride fled, Kriz said, leaving Marshek inside the building.
A new kind of criminal
Kriz said earlier this month that the occurrences don't always lead to a person's arrest at the administration building.
Still, the incidents are happening at such an increased rate that Kriz spoke to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors earlier this month to bring them up to speed on the trend.
Kriz described those trying to commit the fraud as being much more savvy than in the past. Their operation, Kriz said, is now more business-like and more ruthless.
Now, it's common to see people trying to obtain fraudulent titles for cars in the $60,000 to $100,000 price range, Kriz said. And when confronted, those trying to commit the fraud become more belligerent and immediately ask for a lawyer, he said.
Marshek posted $10,000 bond and was released from the Johnson County Jail on Feb. 6, according to online court documents.
"He was bonded out with out-of-state money," Kriz said. "It's a cost of doing business for them."
Sheriff's Office Sgt. Brad Kunkel, one of the officers who responded to the Feb. 5 incident, said the staff at the Treasurer's Office "deserved props" for how they handled the incident.
"They're getting really good at catching title frauds, and I think they handle the whole situation just fine," he said.
Why Johnson County?
Kriz said it's not easy to spot a fraudulent title.
"The people that do this, they're not just white or black, not just young or old. Title fraud can be a lucrative business that can attract anyone," Kriz said.
Kriz said he suspects Johnson County is a target because of its large population and because those who try to commit the fraud "can blend in."
The treasurer's office serves more than half of the 300 to 500 people who come into the Administration Building each day Kriz said.
The University of Iowa also draws many to the city who won't become permanent residents, but will live in the area for years, he said, which makes it easier for those who would commit the crime to hide among a population "that's constantly turning over."
Protecting the public, employees
For dangerous situations at the Treasurer's Office, there's a silent panic button behind the counter that alerts all law enforcement officers in the area. Kriz said he doesn't like pushing the button because police usually respond in large numbers.
Kriz is worried about alarming the hundreds of people who use the building with a large police presence. He also doesn't want to scare off the criminal at the counter or the driver who sometimes transports those allegedly trying to perpetrate title fraud to the building.
"Sometimes, people bolt. When they realize they're caught, they will run," Kriz said. "That's usually OK with us. But if we don't actually have the fake title in hand, we've only deterred the crime from happening here."
Those who don't run, but know they're caught, often begin to yell at staff, Kriz said. That's when police are needed to protect staff. In his email, Dingbaum called the staff at the Treasurer's Office "our front line defense to title fraud."
Kriz told the Board of Supervisors he would like more cameras in the Treasurer's Office.
"They'll help in the investigation of these crimes. If we catch more of these people with the help of cameras, maybe they'll stop coming here as often," Kriz said.
But Kriz and Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Harney said cameras won't end title fraud in Johnson County.
"You've got to remember, cameras are not as large a deterrent as people expect," said Harney, a former 30-year veteran of the Iowa City Police Department.
Harney suggested that the county work on an internal alert system. Harney described a system where the Treasurer's Office can discretely alert another office in the building and have them call police. Harney said that could avoid tipping off those trying to perpetrate the fraud.
"We need to make things more secure, but I would hate to see the day that we had to lock everything down in the building," Kriz said.
Harney agrees, saying too much security would make the building less accessible to the public.
"We just need to be more aware, more conscious of what's happening in our building," Kriz said.
Title fraud is usually caught by the treasurer's office staff when they get the actual titles in their hands. Since the staff handles hundreds of titles in a day, Kriz said they can notice when they're handling a fake title. If the ink looks off, if there are faint lines that indicate it being a copy, if it feels different from the usual rag-stock paper, they grow suspicious.
Once they have a suspicion, office employees will stall and make as many calls needed to confirm if its real or fake. If it's fake, they call police.