HOULTON, Maine — Car buyers in Oklahoma, California, Florida and South Carolina believed they were purchasing a car from a transport company on Alice Avenue in Houlton.
But the cars they paid for never arrived.
Last week, the Houlton Chamber of Commerce started getting calls from perplexed buyers from around the country trying to confirm the legitimacy of a company, VNKC LLC, purportedly based in Houlton, that was selling antique cars online.
By the fourth caller, the executive director of the Houlton chamber, Jane Torres, drove to the Alice Avenue address to look for the business, but it does not exist in Houlton, Torres said.
Several buyers thought the company was legitimate because the seller provided a VIN number and title, so they deposited money into a bank account and awaited vehicle delivery from Houlton. By Friday, the cars had not arrived, the VNKC website turned out to be linked to a Lithuanian internet service provider and vanished, and phone numbers the buyers had been calling no longer existed.
Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca said the department recently received two callers looking into the address. “Scams of this nature are not unusual and unfortunately result in victims,” he said. “Public education and awareness is key.”
On its website, which is no longer accessible, VNKC listed its address as 59 Alice Ave. — the same address as Casella Waste Systems, Houlton Hauling and Pine Tree waste disposal. Those businesses have no affiliation with VNKC, Casella communications director Jeff Weld said Friday.
An Oklahoma man was told by the seller of a 1987 Chevy Blazer that VNKC, purportedly based in Houlton, would hold his $500 down payment in escrow until the car arrived.
“I talked to them for over five weeks. I have a copy of the title, the bill of lading, the bill of sale, the VIN number,” said the Oklahoma man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “It never arrived. After the shipping date, the number I had been calling went dead.”
The Oklahoma man said the vehicle was last licensed in Maine, and on Monday, he saw the same vehicle again for sale on Cars2Search, a legitimate auto sales website.
He said he is working with the FBI in Oklahoma and Oklahama’s attorney general. Representatives from the Oklahoma agencies did not respond to requests for comment. He said he also contacted the Maine attorney general’s office.
The Maine attorney general’s office has received no complaints about the company or any similar-sounding complaints from Aroostook, said Danna Hayes, special assistant to the Maine attorney general.
Hayes said victims should contact the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division.
In a similar story, Diana Kirkpatrick of Aiken, South Carolina, told Torres in an email that she saw an ad for a Nissan Figaro on Auto Trader. The owner contacted her, and they discussed the sale. He told her that VNKC LLC would hold the money in escrow until she could examine the car and she would be able to return it if there was a problem, she said.
According to Kirkpatrick, she wired the money to Bank of America as directed by VNKC. The car was slated for delivery on Friday. The car did not arrive and her money was gone, she told Torres.
Wilcox Lindall of Wildwood, Florida, sent $35,000 for a yellow 1970 Buick GSX to the same company. Lindall also contacted Torres at the Houlton Chamber. Torres explained to Lindall she could not find the company, and he stopped payment on his check.
On Monday, Lindall said the same vehicle he had purchased, but never received, was again for sale on classic auto sites in Philadelphia and Maine.
The VNKC LLC website, which went dark on Friday, has an ISP registered with SC Lithuanian Radio and TV Center.
Additionally, a U.S. address at 604 Cameron St. Alexandria, Virginia, is listed as the owner of the VNKC LLC web domain.
David Damiani, who owns the Alexandria building and has a law firm there, said on Monday that VNKC LLC is not affiliated with his company or other businesses in the building.
Torres is impressed people called the chamber to verify the business, she said.
“I just wish some of the calls had been made before money changed hands,” she said.