(KTVU) - Imagine spending thousands of dollars on a car for your family and then, a year later, you find out the vehicle was reported stolen - and police take it away.
That's exactly what happened to a Livermore family who became the latest victims of a scam that targets unsuspecting buyers.
It sounded like a great deal. A 2010 Chevy Tahoe for sale on Craigslist. Just 44,000 miles on the odometer. $23,000, cash.
Maria Barrera, her husband Jose and their two kids drove all the way to Fresno -- to a strip mall -- to meet the seller. He showed them a driver's license, and the title for the Tahoe. They handed him a stack of $100 bills.
The family used the Tahoe for an entire year. But recently, they tried to renew the registration and were blocked.
And just this week, a California Highway Patrol investigator showed up at their Livermore home with bad news. Their Tahoe was stolen, the vehicle identification number, or VIN, was bogus.. Their SUV had to be towed away. Barrera burst into tears.
"Right now, they just took away the car, the SUV," Barrera said. "And then, we just have nothing."
Barrera works as a caretaker. Her husband, a cook and a mechanic. The family's now sharing one car..
"That was really really sad, because we work hard," Barrera said. >"We have two jobs, and we work hard to have something. We put that money away to buy something for our family. We have two kids. So it's really sad."
CHP Officer Marc Hinch is part of the Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force. He said he had no choice but to tow the family's Tahoe, which now sits at a police warehouse and will be returned to an insurance company.
"I was actually kind of emotional," Hinch said. "I was like, it hurt. It's not fun talking to someone like that and saying, 'I'm taking your car.' "
Hinch said, "When I looked at the car, just after a few moments it was obvious it wasn't a 2010. It was more like a 2008, 2007, and then after a short inspection, I was able to determine the car was actually stolen a year prior, maybe three weeks before the date she actually bought it."
And the mileage was actually closer to 90,000 miles. The driver's license, the title and the VIN were all fakes, investigators say.
"In this case, they were able to get it registered with the bad VIN number, thru the DMV, which then produced the title for the vehicle, and they were able to sell that vehicle to the victim," Hinch said.
So how can these scams be avoided? Ask to meet the seller at a police department. Avoid cash deals. Do your research. Get the car inspected beforehand and the VIN checked.
"If they don't want to do that, I would stay away," Hinch said.
For her part, Barrera said, "From now on, probably, we'll just go to a dealership, if we're gonna buy something."
The Alameda County task force typically sees several VIN-switch scams each month. Typically the loss is from $7,000 to $15,000.