Thinking of car sharing to earn extra cash? Experts warn car rental smuggling is on the rise

Published: May. 30, 2023 at 4:57 PM MST|Updated: May. 30, 2023 at 6:44 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - A Tucson man became part of a human smuggling investigation after he rented his car to someone through an online car-sharing company.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection impounded the vehicle weeks ago. Now, he’s working to get it back.

Agents with CBP tell 13 News that cartels and smuggling organizations are targeting rental cars for criminal acts. Charles Jackson learned the hard way that renting your car to a total stranger is risky business.

His intention was to earn a little extra cash. Now he’s without a vehicle, his main source of income.

“The person who makes their car available is called the host. The person who rents the car is called a guest,” said Jackson as he showed us the Turo website, described as the world’s largest car sharing marketplace.

He recently bought a 2014 Ford C-Max Hybrid and decided to rent it out on days he’s not using it, charging guests $72.

“One of the things that should have tipped me off is that someone would rather rent my vehicle than rent a Lexus or Mercedes. A Mercedes is a $55 or $65 dollar rental. My car is a Ford.”

Jackson says his first rental using the platform turned into a nightmare. Instead of going to Casa Grande to help a friend move, as agreed to in the messaging app, he says the guest headed out of state.

“It was a 24-hour rental. It was due to be back by 10 o’clock on Tuesday,” said Jackson.

He tells 13 News when the car wasn’t returned he started to panic.

Jackson says the guest drove to El Paso, Texas and was coming back through Willcox when Border Patrol stopped the car.

“And it was for human trafficking. The person who had been arrested was the person who rented my vehicle,” said Jackson.

Border Patrol agent Jesus Vasavilbaso said, “They damage these vehicles because sometimes they’ll drive off road. They’ll drive on roads they don’t know sometimes in the middle of the night.”

Vasavilbaso says while most criminal incidents involving peer to peer car rentals are out of Phoenix, it’s happening in southern Arizona too.

“I don’t have any data, but I can tell in the past couple years we’ve seen an increase,” said Vasavilbaso.

One reason is when law enforcement runs the license plate, unlike a car rental from a national chain, it appears as a personal vehicle.

“Now with the peer-to-peer rentals it’s much harder to know if this is a rental vehicle,” said Vasavilbaso.

Jackson shared with 13 News the guest’s driver’s license, saying he passed Turo’s background checks.

Public records show that driver has two state drug convictions. One for driving under the influence of a dangerous drug in Phoenix in 2015. And another for possession of drug paraphernalia in Marana last October.

We asked Turo what kind of background checks are done on drivers before they can rent vehicles?

Turo’s communications team emailed us this statement:

“We conduct robust safety screenings to flag and investigate any suspicious activities, and we’re implementing additional solutions with law enforcement agencies and affiliated organizations to ensure our community remains safe and protected.”

Additionally, a Turo spokesperson tells 13 News the guest who rented the vehicle online, possibly isn’t the same person who Jackson handed his keys to, claiming Jackson failed to do a physical ID check.

Even so, Turo says they have suspended the guest’s account and are covering Jackson’s costs, including his car insurance and car payment until the vehicle is returned to him.

“I was told it’s a long procedure to get the vehicle back. It can take up to three months,” said Jackson, who doesn’t believe his car is damaged.

For anyone thinking of renting out their vehicle, Vasavilbaso recommends investing in GPS.

Jackson’s advice is to listen to your gut instinct, “As soon as I handed it over to him. I knew I probably made a big mistake.”

We asked Turo, how often vehicles are used by smugglers? A spokesperson tells us situations like this are rare, saying 99% of trips end without significant incidents.

Here is the full statement Turo provided:

“We were deeply troubled to hear about the recent trust and safety incident involving Mr. Jackson’s vehicle, and our team has acted swiftly to support both the host and law enforcement in their investigation. As part of our commitment to ensuring the safety of our community, we have suspended the guest’s account and are covering Mr. Jackson’s costs related to the incident. Our dedicated Trust and Safety team is doing all we can to assist in retrieving the vehicle and resolving this matter as quickly as possible. We want to remind all our hosts to follow Turo’s guidelines on guest check-ins, which include requiring drivers to verify their driver’s license upon vehicle pick-up, and reporting any suspicious activity to our 24/7 support team. While such incidents are rare on our platform, with over 99.9% of trips ending without any significant incidents, the safety of our community is our top priority at Turo. To criminals targeting our community, be assured that you will be brought to justice. Our experienced Trust and Safety investigators, including many former law enforcement personnel, take swift action against criminal behavior on our platform and support our law enforcement partners. We conduct robust safety screenings to flag and investigate any suspicious activities, and we’re implementing additional solutions with law enforcement agencies and affiliated organizations to ensure our community remains safe and protected.”

To hear more of Charles Jackson’s interview with Rebecca Taylor, click here:

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