Two used car dealerships in Schuylkill County, along with vehicle transport companies in Lehighton and Monroe County, have been charged by the state attorney general’s office in connection with an organized crime ring that fraudulently obtained more than 1,000 Pennsylvania license plates. In all, 12 people and 14 businesses in New York and Pennsylvania were charged in the multistate scheme after an extensive investigation.

The ring leader was identified as Rafael Levi, 50, of Brooklyn, New York.

In addition to the license plates, the scheme involved fake insurance cards and driver’s licenses, rolling back odometer readings and “washing” car titles.

The two Schuylkill County dealerships are Prestige AAA Auto Sales Inc., 1142 Centre Turnpike in Orwigsburg and Aflak Auto Sales Inc. of 52 Zerby St. in Cressona. The local transport companies are Hobs Auto Transport, also known as Falcar Trans LLC, of 110 S. First St., Lehighton, and Donna Auto Transport Inc. of 5126 Milford Road, East Stroudsburg.

Levi and his associates created companies in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey to apply for licenses, insurance, car loans and dealer/transporter plates. The information provided to the PA Department of State and PennDOT included forged lien payoff letters, incorrect mileage forms, and fictitious vehicle trade ins or values of trade ins. A notary seal stolen in 2011, then altered, was used for the transactions.

The plates were then “rented” out to drivers, mostly in the New York City area, for $400 a month, or more. This enabled the “renter” to avoid paying registration fees, drive without vehicle insurance and avoid paying parking fines and EZ Pass tolls in New York, Pennsylvania and several other states. The unpaid fines alone amounted to more than $1 million.

The car dealers/transporters would then go out of business and fail to return the plates to the state as required.

PennDOT issues two types of license plates to businesses selling and transporting motor vehicles — dealerships for businesses actively involved in buying and selling vehicles; and those where vehicles are transported between dealerships. Both types of businesses are required to list all of the owners, partners, corporate officers and any other business located at the stated address as well as have vehicle insurance. Levi’s organization failed to supply complete information and had invalid insurance policies that were fake, canceled or out of date.

The scheme began in 2008. From then until now, the organization acquired more than 400 license plates. Many of the businesses had 50 or more dealer plates. PennDOT estimates a dealer with 30 plates would be considered as a significant dealership, significantly above the state average.

The investigation was conducted by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General’s Insurance Fraud Section after Pennsylvania State Police began an investigation into multiple, small vehicle dealerships scattered throughout the rural areas of central Pennsylvania. Officers found many of the “dealerships” were nothing more than rented storage units, small rented office spaces or utility sheds with no vehicle inventories with business limited to one or two hours per week.

The announcement of the charges was made Wednesday afternoon by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro following a grand jury proceeding. The case will be prosecuted by Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert LaBar.