DA: 3 charged in rent-to-steal car scam
Three Suffolk County men have been indicted on charges they used stolen credit card information from hundreds of Long Islanders to rent, then steal and sell high-end rental cars from airport vendors, authorities said Wednesday.
Dozens of expensive rental cars, such as Mercedes-Benzes and Cadillacs, were stolen from Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports since January -- some sold for a fraction of their retail price and others possibly shipped overseas, Suffolk prosecutors said.
"The scheme illustrates . . . the dangers that lurk out there," Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a Hauppauge news conference, surrounded by equipment used to make the fake credit cards.
Charged in the indictment were: Jason Gonzalez, 23, of Lindenhurst, who allegedly created the fake documents in his bedroom at his parents' home; Felix M. Sanchez, 29, of Brentwood; and Jose A. Lopez, 29, of Bay Shore. Sanchez and Lopez rented and sold the cars, authorities said. A fourth man, Kenneth G. Godfrey, 47, of Holbrook, was arrested during the investigation and charged with selling marijuana, Spota said.
Gonzalez's attorney, Jonathan Manley of Central Islip, said his client, a college student, pleaded not guilty and the charges against him are "severely overblown." Gonzalez was arraigned in criminal court in Riverhead on Oct. 8 on 13 counts of possession of a forged instrument, six counts of third-degree possession of personal identifying information, and other charges, and was released on $5,000 cash bail. He is due back in court Nov. 12.
"Jason had absolutely no involvement," Manley said. "Jason's a good kid. He comes from a very good, hardworking family."
Robert Macedonio, a Central Islip attorney for Lopez, said his client "categorically denies all allegations." Lopez is charged with 22 counts, including possession of stolen property, a forged instrument, and sale and possession of marijuana and a controlled substance.
He said his client, who he expects will be "fully exonerated," pleaded not guilty at his Oct. 9 arraignment. He is being held on bail of $150,000 cash or $300,000 bond.
Authorities learned of the credit card and car-theft scheme when undercover investigators from the Suffolk district attorney's office began buying drugs -- marijuana and oxycodone -- from Godfrey and Lopez, officials said. Investigators paid $22,800 for eight cars worth a total of $245,000, and later recovered two more.
With equipment bought on eBay, Gonzalez "provide[d] his accomplices with authentic-looking driver's licenses, ID cards and credit cards," Spota said.
Credit card information was stolen using a skimmer at an undisclosed national retail chain in Suffolk and other locations, officials said. The stolen information was transferred to gift cards, which were used by Sanchez and Lopez to rent the cars, then steal and sell them. Authorities said Avis, Hertz, Thrifty and Dollar were among the car-rental vendors victimized. The companies couldn't be reached.
Sanchez's attorney could not be reached, and Godfrey's lawyer did not respond.
With John Valenti