Do your homework before offering your vehicle for sale. You might just become another victim of a park-and-sell dealership scam. Picture: Mike Blake/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

There were so many victims, they started a WhatsApp group. They’d been swindled by the same crowd, lost their cars and they wanted compensation.

Then a few decided to confront the owner and arrived en masse at the dealership in Ridgeway, in the south of Johannesburg - captured by the team at CheckPoint.

Management was nowhere to be found, so they demanded answers from a familiar face - the salesman Dillen who had “assisted” most of them but tried to pretend at first that it was a case of mistaken identity. Staff, taking telephonic instructions from the boss, scurried away with company materials. Seizing the moment, the victims swooped into the office, poring over files and any documents they could get their hands on.

They found a cash book containing entries of pay-offs to police - and evidence of how Hi Brid Auto, now known as Car Bar, which is also linked to Brett Lee Pre-Owned, had peddled their cars without paying for them, sold vehicles more than once and even offloaded stolen cars.

Not only had Hi Brid Auto “rebranded” to shift focus from their operations, but the owner, Rajen Pillay, and his family were behind similar dealerships across the city. Vehicles were often transferred between Hi Brid and Brett Lee, without owners’ permission, many disappearing in the convoluted park and drive scam.

Pillay, blaming his problems on strife between family as well as cash flow problems, vowed to set things right, telling the actuality show he was desperately trying to “restructure” his companies in order to “revive” himself.

But his “revival” efforts have left misery in its wake. People lost their cars, bought cars without papers, were promised payment that never materialised and even victims who ended up in trouble with the law themselves.

Anita Lau is one such victim. She told me that in 2017 she bought a car from the so-called car dealer in Ridgeway. “I traded my 1992 BMW 316i for a Hyundai i20 2012. I paid cash for the car and was promised my registration papers within a few days. The few days turned into weeks, which in turn took years.”

She’s still no better off. “I have continuously asked them for my papers, only to be told excuse after excuse.”

“Lerato” wrote on Report a Crime: “On the July 6, 2018, I took my car in to their premises and signed a contract that said they will sell the car in 30 days and once the car has been sold they will make payment in another 30 days. The sales lady said to me if they don’t sell the vehicle in 30 days I can fetch the vehicle by giving them a 72 hours’ notice.”

The next month, Lerato’s car hadn’t been sold. “I was told to give them more time as they have prospective buyers. In September 2018, where the car wasn’t still sold I demanded my vehicle. This time I was told that there is a holding deposit on the vehicle so the vehicle cannot be released. I even called the police to request for their assistance, Booysens and Mondeor, to no avail.”

The following month, she was told the car had been sold and she was given a payment release form to sign that the payment would be effected in 30 days. When the due date came and went, the manager told her it’s actually “30 business days, barring weekends”. She never received payment.

And Thuso M wrote on Hello Peter: “(Brid Auto) scam people of their cars and money, I was selling my car and was frequently called by a consultant telling me they can sell my car in less than three weeks, and we signed a consignment letter that said I must give them a 30-day period to sell my car. After 30 days I went to collect my car but they refused, saying that there is a hold-up deposit on the car, I returned a week later, Mr Pillay their boss, said he will buy the car, but after 30 days there was no money on my account, I kept calling them but they never answered I then reported my car stolen and my tracker found it and by that time they were in a process of changing its registration because it was found with no licence disc and number plates. People, stay away.”

Five years ago already, victims had tried to open cases at the Booysen police station, but were told these were civil matters, not criminal. Now - finally - they have the police’s ear and an investigating officer has been assigned.

Lawyer Yousha Tayob, who represents seven of Pillay’s victims, said it’s criminal theft and fraud - but clients’ cases are not clear-cut because of the way the contracts were set up.

“Their contracts were written very vaguely and a number of important clauses are missing - on purpose, I believe. What they’ve done is to dupe the owners into giving up possession of their vehicles. But there’s no loophole, it’s criminal what they’ve done,” Tayob said.

Since that CheckPoint show aired in February, even more victims have come forward, complaining on social media and adding their names to the investigation.

Tayob said the last time he visited Booysen police station, he saw at least 80 dockets. He says this park-and-sell dealership scheme has operated for years without consequence.

“They started off as Novelty Cars. When that sank, they opened another entity, Cars @ Ridgeway. When that tanked, they opened Hi Brid Auto,” he said.

“They tell customers, ‘give us your car to sell’ and make a vague contractual promise to pay, but customers don’t get their money.”

Tayob said victims of the scam have not only lost their vehicles and money - some have also got into trouble with the law.“A few were stopped at roadblocks and were arrested because the vehicles were stolen.”

Gauteng Police spokesperson, Kay Makhubele, said the dockets are now with the police’s commercial crimes unit for investigation.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.