A scam involving a fake website, phone number and email account — run by unknown scammers and parading as a Chattanooga auto dealership — was successful in duping an undisclosed number of high-end car buyers before its discovery early last week.
The buyers believed they were dealing with Chattanooga-based TM Auto Sales and its owner, wholesaler Ray McKee.
Officials with the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance alerted consumers of the scam this week, warning them to steer clear of the fake website and phone number which even used TM Auto Sales' Chattanooga address but displayed pictures of a fictional showroom and products.
The real TM Auto Sales has no website and no showroom on Connor Lane, at its small building off Lee Highway.
Until now, the small business has maintained a clean record, according to state officials.
"Licensed by the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission, TM Auto Sales has been in business since 2008, has no complaints filed against it and no official online presence," according to a Department of Commerce and Insurance statement.
Even so, following the report and discovery of the scam, the real Ray McKee — the owner of TM Auto Sales — is worried that angry victims of the scam will show up at his Connor Lane shop and try to recoup their losses by whatever means necessary.
McKee said this week that he has received several angry phone calls from victims of the sales scam, and that many of them refused to cut him slack in the affair, though he believes he is as much a victim of the fraud as anyone.
McKee found out about the scam himself only last week after a New York man showed up in Chattanooga wanting to pick up the $60,000 BMW he had purchased online from the fake TM Auto Sales.
According to a police report, the buyer, identified as Josh Yiatras, "showed up [Aug. 18] from New York to pick up a vehicle that he bought off the Internet supposedly from a TM Auto Sales website. Mr. McKee advised that he didn't have a website to sell vehicles."
And "I said, 'I don't really know what you're talking about,'" McKee told him.
After talking with Yiatras, McKee pulled up www.tmautosales.com (which has since been removed) and realized someone was masquerading as him, and his business — and that they had scammed Yiatras.
"It ain't my building, it ain't my cars. The reviews ain't me," said McKee, of the fake website. "Ain't nothing me, except my name."
McKee said a female victim of the scam reportedly put money down on a boat listed on the fake TM Auto Sales site, and has called wanting to know when she can get the boat and pay the rest of her balance.
"I said, 'Lady, this is a scam. I don't know nothing about it,'" said McKee.
And now, the small business owner says he will probably stay away from the office until things cool down.
"I'm going to stay away from there. I don't want to get killed myself," McKee said. "I'm not going to stand there and let somebody shoot me because they think I've scammed them out of a few thousand dollars."
Kevin Walters, communications director for the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, said this week that McKee's case is one of the more unusual ones he remembers.
"We have never had a case like this," he said.
Walters said McKee self-reported the scam to the state and was cooperative in getting the word out for consumers to avoid further damage at the scammers' hands.
He also said the scammers were likely operating from somewhere overseas. They continued to answer and return phone calls and run the fake website into Wednesday afternoon.
"They feel secure and safe enough that they are going to do this and get away with it as long as they can," he said.
And for the buyers who have already lost money, Walters said it will be tough, likely even impossible, for them to recoup their losses.
"Sadly, I don't think that's likely — not unless the scammers were caught and funds recovered," he said in an email. "In this case, we don't know yet who the scammers are/were."
Any victim of the sales scam should contact the Chattanooga Police Department at 423-698-2525.
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6480.