The Land Rover Defender restoration industry is often considered a gray market industry in U.S. Old Land Rover Defenders have been banned for years, and only vintage examples that predated the ban are titled in most states. It is that scarcity of the forbidden fruit that create a cult-like following and an opportunity for fraudsters. A recent case involving allegations of a massive restoration fraud hailing out Pierce County, Washington that underscores the escalating crisis in the Land Rover restoration industry. The incident serves as a harsh warning for North America’s Land Rover Defender afficionados.
By way of background, Land Rover Defenders were sold in the United States from the early 1990s through 1997. Changes to Department of Transportation regulations for later models required side-impact door beams and front-seat airbags. These are safety modification that Land Rover (now owned by an Indian conglomerate TATA) chose not to install, given that Defenders were low production vehicles. Due to its scarcity, off road dependability and tractor-like styling, the Defender remains a cult-like niche market that has not been squeezed by the recent introduction of the modern Defender models. The old Land Rover Defender remained cosmetically similar throughout its production run, making it difficult for people to distinguish between a legal 1988 Defender and an illegal 1998 Defender with older VIN numbers. Many dishonest restoration shops take advantage of these similarities to lure in customers for restoration projects that are in violation of state and federal laws. Defenders Northwest, LLC out of Gig Harbor, Pierce County, Washington is alleged to be such a shop by the victims who recently sued the restoration and parts shop and its owners, Michele A. Hall and Brian T. Hall.
The vintage land Rover Defender is at the forefront of fraudulent restoration schemes that either trap customers by selling them unrealistic pricing or optimistic but false completion and delivery timelines. Sometimes, even if the costs and schedules meet customer expectations, what they are not told is that they are ultimately driving an illegal vehicle. These at times get seized by law enforcement and – yet again – the customer ends up paying the heavy price. In the Defenders Northwest example, the customers never received the car, and the lawyers for the insurance company are continuing to aid their insured client in obfuscating the sad fact that the vehicle is gone and that the restoration was a fraudulent scheme, as the court documents allege.
Just as with the Defenders Northwest case, the victims of restoration fraud are usually collectors and Land Rover enthusiasts. The Defenders Northwest litigation illustrates that there is need for new, better regulations and uniformity of rules. It has been flagged in recent news https://www.theodysseyonline.com/washington-land-rover-restoration-shop-faces-7-figure-fraud-charges, https://www.apnnews.com/gig-harbor-washington-defenders-northwest-llc-accused-of-running-car-restoration-scam/
A major lawsuit alleging fraud was filed last year against Defenders Northwest LLC and Brian Hall and Michele Hall and their affiliated company AutoHome USA. The legal documents filed explain that Brian Hall and Michele Hall, and their company, Defenders Northwest, LLC of Gig Harbor, Washington not only engage in import of gray market and banned (contraband) Land Rover Defender parts but are actually scamming people by taking on restoration projects to steel customers’ cars and money, subsequently browbeating them with bogus claims for storage and phantom fees. The complaint alleges that a local attorney and purported partners in Defenders Northwest, Shawn Harju, has been aiding Defenders Northwest and the Brian Hall in the alleged scam.
The lengthy legal documents filed in state court, meticulously describe how two swindlers with the help of some consultants orchestrated a fraudulent scheme to cheat their customers in excess of 6 figures. Defenders Northwest markets its services through its web site www.defenersnorthwest.com and various online discussion forums, auto shows, and social media.
Based in a sleepy small town, Gig Harbor, Washington, the alleged fraudsters who had filed for personal bankruptcy set up a repair and parts sales shop that prays on unsuspecting vintage Land Rover Defender enthusiasts. The couple’s web site claims to provide parts and restoration services to the tightly knit Land Rover Defender community. The voluminous lawsuit is rife with grave civil and criminal allegations that the Gig Harbor couple with the aid of Shawn Harju stole a vintage Land Rover they were contracted to restore. Allegedly, Brian Hall and his wife, Michele Hall, kept running the scam for years, sending fraudulent invoices while making up excuses why the owners’ vehicles cannot be delivered. Brian Hall claimed that his shop was targeted for multiple burglaries and vandalism; then, Brian Hall claimed that COVID-19 delays and sudden phantom electrical problems led to more delays. Just like other fraudsters and Ponzi scheme operators, Brian Hall and Michele Hall were spiraling out of control when they ran out of lies and excuses to cover up their scheme.
According to various publication and legal documents, the projects entrusted to Defenders Northwest, Brian Hall and Michele Hall were leveraged to obtain sponsored parts for the famous Las Vegas based SEMA auto show without the customers’ permission. SEMA is a trade industry event for the automotive specialty equipment manufacturers to display alongside automotive manufacturers to debut new, innovative products, and connect with industry buyers from all over the world. According to the legal documents we reviewed, the restoration project, which ran up to mid-six figures of unaccounted fees and fabricated invoices, was a carefully orchestrated fraud, when finally Brian Hall and Michele and their part time lawyer, Shawn Harju refused to deliver the vehicle, demanding more money (after admitting there was nothing owed) and a full release points our attorney, Alessandro Assanti of A. G. Assanti.
Land Rover Defender repair and restoration business is already tainted and is watched by Homeland Security Investigators and Customs & Border Protection. Defender vehicles were banned from being imported into the U.S. Restored vintage Land Rover Defenders are often sold for high dollars that rival Mercedes SUVs and fall into the hands of wealthy off-road adventurers. They end up being an easy mark for scammers.
The court documents examined by reporters allege that Defenders Northwest LLC and Brian and Michele Hall operate an illegal restoration business that caters to customers who pay extra to register banned vehicles by using industry loopholes. Moreover, the court documents show that fraud in the restoration industry is ubiquitous and ought to be a priority for law enforcement. In the meantime, vintage car enthusiasts need to be vigilant when they hire restoration experts.
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