Owner of Powhatan auto electronics repair shop pleads guilty in federal odometer tampering case

A Powhatan County man was convicted Monday for his role in a scheme that rolled back the odometers on more than 50 vehicles, fraudulently boosting the value of each one by as much as $10,000.

Michael Carey Eubank, 52, who owns an automotive electronics repair shop in Powhatan, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to alter a motor vehicle odometer and faces up to five years in prison when sentenced Oct. 9 by U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

A two-page criminal charge filed June 10 alleged that Eubank’s company website advertised services that included “odometer re-programming or re-setting.” It also stated that, “Mileage proof [is] required, odometer tampering is a federal crime.”

The charge only identified the company as “Company 1.” But Eubank told Gibney on Monday that his company is Advanced Auto Electronics and was formerly located in Midlothian.

From September 2010 to June 2018, Eubank conspired with at least one other person to reset the odometers to false, lower readings. “Individuals brought vehicles, or vehicle instrument clusters containing odometers, to Company 1 and requested that Eubank change the odometers to lower mileage readings,” the government alleged.

The only co-conspirator identified in court papers is Lawson Basnight, 49, of Norfolk, who pleaded guilty to the same charge last year and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars.

Basnight was also ordered to pay more than $403,000 in restitution — the difference in price caused by the false readings plus, in some cases, unexpected repair costs — to more than 50 victims. Basnight admitted running the scam from September 2010 through October 2016.

While the charging document against Eubank referred to multiple odometers, it only cited one specific case: On Feb. 25, 2016, Basnight brought a 2009 Ford F-150 with 165,000 miles on it and Eubank used an electronic tool to reset the odometer to 54,900 miles.

It was unclear Monday if Eubank participated in lowering the odometers of all of the vehicles in Basnight’s scheme and if the same restitution list of victims and losses will be sought in Eubank’s case.

Jacqueline M. Blaesi-Freed, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s consumer protection branch, told Gibney on Monday that the losses were determined by the price Basnight paid for the vehicle and the price ultimately paid by the victims who purchased vehicles at fraudulently inflated prices.

She said that in some cases, unexpected repair bills were added to determine the loss incurred by a victim and in others, where the price difference could not be determined, an average loss figure of $7,868.58 was used — the same average figure used for Basnight.

In Basnight’s case, the false mileage readings on the altered odometers and fraudulent titles were as much as 110,000 miles less than the vehicles’ actual mileage, and Basnight netted as much as $10,000 in profit for each vehicle sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

Basnight found high-mileage vehicles online, at times posing as a used-car dealer or using an alias. When he bought the vehicles, he told the sellers not to fill out the assignment section of the title.

“After defendant Lawson W. Basnight purchased the vehicles, a co-conspirator acting at his direction disconnected, reset, and altered the vehicles’ odometers to reflect inaccurate lower mileage readings,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum concerning Basnight.

In response to questions from Gibney on Monday, Eubank said he altered the odometers for $125 a piece and that Basnight usually just brought the unit and left it at the front counter.

Basnight prepared title applications and other documents, writing in false odometer readings in the assignment section of the title. At times, he used unwitting people to obtain the titles and sell the vehicles to an unidentified “major used car retailer.”

“This was a long-running, well-thought-out scheme that [Basnight] ceased only after being caught by law enforcement,” prosecutors complained.

Prosecutors said the scheme not only led to unexpected repair and maintenance costs to the victims but also jeopardized driver safety.

Eubank, who had no prior criminal record, was allowed to remain free pending his sentencing hearing.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 450,000 vehicles are sold each year in the U.S. with false odometer readings, leading to losses of more than $1 billion to consumers.

The NHTSA has established a hotline to handle odometer fraud complaints at (888) 327-4236 (TTY for individuals with hearing impairments: (800) 424-9153).

Original Article: https://www.richmond.com/news/local/crime/owner-of-powhatan-auto-repair-shop-pleads-guilty-in-federal/article_4e258051-c815-5bb6-8744-47f0b6ebb314.html