(This article was originally published on January 30, 2014)
From the outside, it looked like any number of other run-down auto-repair shops along Albuquerque’s East Central Avenue.
But behind the ramshackle facade lay what police say was one of the most prolific auto theft rings in the city’s history.
Anjum Tahir and Boback Sabeerin ran the operation for years. And while it’s impossible to tell for sure how far their reach stretched, Tahir and Sabeerin may have been responsible for hundreds of organized vehicle thefts around the metro area.
Car theft rings aren’t totally unheard of in New Mexico or around the country, but the scope of Tahir’s and Sabeerin’s operation put it in a different category.
It was the men’s longevity and their tactics, though, that really stood out.
“The simplicity of it was just incredible: how they did it and got away with it for an extended period of time without anybody picking up on it,” said Tim Fassler, a now-retired APD detective who oversaw a police investigation of the pair’s criminal enterprise.
A KRQE News 13 investigation reveals the key to making those tactics work: junked cars and Vehicle Identification Number plates.
Here’s how the scam worked: Tahir and Sabeerin would steal a vehicle, preferably a high-end model such as a BMW, a Hummer, a Lexus or a nice Ford pickup truck. Next, the pair would head for an auto auction, where they’d keep their eyes peeled for a wrecked or otherwise junked twin to one of the vehicles they’d stolen.
Tahir and Sabeerin would plunk down a few hundred bucks for the junked vehicle, pry off its VIN plate, then affix that plate to the hot car already in their possession.
And: Voila, a car with a new identity, ready for sale to the unsuspecting public for a substantial profit. They made their sales in parking lots and on street corners around the city.
“Let’s say you bought the salvage for $300,” Fassler explained. “You get a similar vehicle, switch the VIN numbers on it and you sell it to the public: in one case, $6,000 cash. That’s a whole lot of profit for a very little bit of work.”
Here’s an example of the men’s handiwork: They stole a Dodge Charger from a residence in the Northeast Heights. Two weeks later, they went to the insurance auto auction and bought a wrecked Charger for $700. They sold the stolen Charger to an unsuspecting victim for $11,000.
On another occasion, Tahir and Sabeerin stole a $14,000 BMW and retrofitted it with a VIN plate from a junked BMW they paid $1,200 for at the insurance auction.
Sandy Blalock of the New Mexico Recyclers’ Association told News 13 auto thieves live Tahir and Sabeerin commonly infiltrate the auto auctions.
“The value of a salvage to an auto thief is that they pay a very small amount for that vehicle, they usually tend to buy the very heavily damaged vehicles that really only have a value as far as scrap value,” Blalock said, adding that the scheme is particularly damaging in a place like New Mexico.
“It is a very big deal,” Blalock said. “The unrecovered auto theft rate in New Mexico is one of the highest in the country.”
It may not ever be possible to get a handle on the full breadth of the operation run by Tahir and Sabeerin.
“Potentially there’s a hundred victims out there right now without knowing they are driving a VIN switched stolen (vehicle),” APD auto theft detective Matt Morales said.
Detectives took nearly 30 vehicles and dozens of partially dismantled cars, trucks and SUVs out of the shop after a raid. It took nearly three days to catalog it all.
From there, the investigation turned to recovering vehicles from people who had unknowingly bought stolen vehicles from Tahir and Sabeerin on street corners and in vacant parking lots, police said. One of them was an elderly widow.
“This poor woman began to cry,” Fassler told KRQE News 13. “She paid $6,000 cash for it. She was alone. And I just felt for her because I have to do what I have to do. I have to take that vehicle back. The best we could do is prosecute the people who did this to her.”
As for Tahir and Sabeerin, they were convicted of auto theft and are now serving lengthy prison sentences.
But Blalock says they weren’t the only thieves using the VIN-switching scheme to sell stolen vehicles.
“They’re all over the state of New Mexico, and we have a high concentration of them right in the Albuquerque area,” he said.