The specialty car restoration business is international in nature. Those who specialize in it source parts internationally, and some scour various suppliers in North America. Sadly, this specialized industry is wrought with fraud and the only remedy is uniform best practices and better collaboration between law enforcement agencies.
Land Rover Defender restoration fraud has been around for some time, and the victims are usually collectors and Land Rover enthusiasts. One such incident illustrates that there is a need for new, better regulations and uniformity of rules.
Many of the incidents are discussed ad nauseam on popular Defender forums such as Land Rover Forums, Defender Source, NAS-ROW, and many others. There are also many legitimate companies that offer parts and restoration services for Defender enthusiasts. On April 23, the Robb Report selected 7 of the top Land Rover Defender restoration companies. The list included Himalaya, ECD Automotive Design, Arkonik, Osprey Custom Cars, and a few others. Missing from the list for good reason is a Washington state company that many Defender aficionados don’t know much about.
A major lawsuit alleging fraud was filed against Defenders Northwest, LLC, and its owners, sending an earthquake through the Defender community. The legal documents filed explain that Defenders Northwest, and its owners, not only engage in the import of gray market and contraband parts but are actually scamming people by taking on restoration projects to steal customers’ cars and money.
The lengthy legal documents filed in state court, meticulously describe how, with the help of some consultants, orchestrated a fraudulent scheme to cheat its customers in excess of six figures. Defenders Northwest markets itself through its website and various online discussion forums, auto shows, and social media.
Based in Gig Harbor, Washington, the alleged fraudsters who had filed for personal bankruptcy set up a repair shop that targets unsuspecting Defender enthusiasts. The company’s website claims to provide parts and restoration services to the tightly-knit Defender community. In one instance highlighted in the lawsuit, it is alleged that Defenders Northwest stole a vintage Land Rover Defender they were contracted to restore.
Allegedly, the company kept running the scam for years, sending fraudulent invoices while making up excuses as to why the owners’ vehicles couldn’t be delivered. At one point, the company’s owners claimed that their shop was burgled, then COVID-19 delays and infrastructure problems led to more delays.
Allegedly, the projects entrusted to Defenders Northwest 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 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, the restoration project, which ran up to mid-six figures of unaccounted fees and fabricated invoices, was a carefully orchestrated fraud.
Land Rover Defenders were sold domestically from 1993 to 1997. Major changes to DOT regulations for later models required side-impact door beams and front-seat airbags. These are safety modifications that Land Rover chose not to install, given that Defenders were a low-volume vehicle. Due to its ultra-rugged reputation and its resemblance to classic Land Rovers of yesteryear, the Defender remains in high demand today. The 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 outfits take advantage of these similarities to lure in customers for restoration projects that are in violation of state and federal laws. Defenders Northwest is alleged to be such a shop by the victims who sued.
Because the Defender repair and restoration business is already controversial, the U.S. government has taken a keen interest. Defender vehicles are 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. The court documents examined allege that Defenders Northwest operates an illegal restoration business that caters to customers who pay extra to register banned vehicles by using industry loopholes.