Classic Car Restoration Scams On The Rise: Concours Classic Cars, Defenders Northwest, Healey Werks – Accused of Defrauding Customers.
Classic car restoration fraud is on the rise. Now, Federal authorities and the FBI are taking notice and victims are fighting back. The losses are in the millions and recovering the vehicles and the money is often difficult. Authorities and victims are warning car collectors to be cautious and dig beyond fancy social media profiles or positive endorsements on google or yelp.
Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross announced that Clark P. Rittersbach, 49, of Cape Coral, Florida, was criminally charged with wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.
According to the criminal charges, Rittersbach owned Concours Classic Motor Cars in Macedon, NY. The company, which claimed to specialize in the restoration and sale of vintage vehicles, has many long distance and international customers. Since at least 2017, Rittersbach has fraudulently billed at least three victims for restoration work on their antique vehicles that he either did not complete or did not perform at all, despite communicating to them via email and text message that he had.
As a result of this criminal scheme, Rittersbach fraudulently obtained at least $1.15 million dollars from the three victims. The fraudulent restoration projects included 1964 Porsche 356C, which the victim never received, a 1932 Duesenberg Murphy, which was never acquired for the other victim. According to the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case, the fraudster claimed that he restored a 1926 Rolls Royce “Silver Ghost” which was a lie. The victim car collector hired private investigators and attorneys and exposed the shameless scammer. The criminal case that ensued is the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of Special Agent-in-Charge, Matthew Miraglia.
Last year a Lawton, Iowa based car restoration company was ordered to pay more than $7 million for breaching an agreement regarding the restoration of three vehicles. According to a lawsuit filed with the district court for Woodbury County, a jury ruled in favor of a client of The Healey Werks Corp for $7,172,886.42 after the company allegedly breached an agreement regarding the sale of three Healey model cars. The client, William Oesterle, filed a lawsuit against The Healey Werks Corp, ANCA Properties, and Craig Hillinger.
In another example of car restoration from hell, in 2022 a Gig Harbor, Washington couple, Brian T. Hall and Michele A. Hall, were sued by victims of an alleged vintage car restoration scam for millions of dollars. The victims claimed in court filings that the Halls and their Land Rover Defender restoration business, Defenders Northwest, LLC, swindled them through an eight-year fraudulent scheme that according to the legal filings involved fraudulent billing, delays predicated on incidents of third-party vandalism to the victims’ vehicles, bad faith, fraudulent mechanics’ liens, and ultimately a missing car. Allegedly, the Halls and Defenders Northwest went on the offensive and launched harassing and defamatory attacks on the attorneys and their clients as retribution for standing up to them and demanding that the Halls turn over the vehicle that was entrusted with them. According to legal documents, once the fraud was uncovered, lawsuits followed.
Court documents meticulously explain how Michele Hall and Brian Hall orchestrated a plan to cheat their customers out of their Land Rover Defender 130 vehicle that was entrusted to them for restoration almost 8 years ago. Cursory review of Brian Hall and Defenders Northwest LLC did not show warning signs online. The Halls posted off road rallies, Cars & Coffee events, group trips and do it yourself tips catering to the tightly knit vintage land Rover Defender community. Their Facebook and Instagram posts portrayed a wholesome image focusing on hobbyists and off-road enthusiasts. In hindsight, the online wholesome image was a façade.
In another incident, according to Motorious.com, an automotive news site, the FBI and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York have lifted the lid on a fraud scheme involving classic cars that has scammed buyers out of $4.5 million. The fraudsters were charged with ‘conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit concealment money laundering’. Their scheme involved setting up fake Internet adverts for classic car sales, then creating multiple false accounts to launder the victims’ money. Their fraudulent restoration scheme ran from November 2016 to July of this year. The charges of wire fraud and money laundering could put each ofthe alleged scammers in a prison for up to 50 years, according to the Motorious.com story.
According to Classiccaradvisors.com, scammers do evolve and the latest trend is for some of the questionable car restoration shops to move into fancy facilities to fake their way into making the hobbyist believe they are a highly successful. To prevent being dazzled into handing over your vintage Mustang or Land Rover Defender to fraudsters remember to ask important questions such as:How long has the shop been at that location?
How long have mechanics worked there, and how long are they in the industry?Do they have off property storage, and if they do where? How secure is the facility? Have the owners filed for bankruptcy recently? Do they have real references?
Collectors should get guarantees that their vintage car and parts will always remain at the restoration shop property, and not be sent to the off-property facility.
Authorities recommend hiring private investigators and checking in on the car during the restoration project. The lesson for vintage car collectors is to do deep due diligence, have a solid written agreement with the shop, and avoid sending their restoration projects to remote locations.