Sunday 20 October 2019

Operation Sign-Off: How gardaí nabbed 'cars for cash' king and exposed colour-coded crime ring

Superintendent Thomas Murphy and Sgt Peter Woods with some of the signs seized as part of Operation Sign-Off
Superintendent Thomas Murphy and Sgt Peter Woods with some of the signs seized as part of Operation Sign-Off

Cathal McMahon

Illegal 'cars for cash' posters have effectively disappeared from Dublin city and county after gardaí smashed the sophisticated criminal operation behind them.

Over the last three years signs seeking cars for sale started appearing on signposts, traffic lights and other "street furniture" across the capital on an almost nightly basis.

The plastic signs, erected illegally, typically carried messages that people were willing to pay cash for any vehicles including those that had failed the NCT or ones that had been written off. The advertisers also included a mobile phone number for the seller to call.

Sergeant Peter Woods of the DMR Traffic Division explained that he became concerned about the signs in May 2015 after members of the public complained that they couldn't see other road alerts

"People were using this as an excuse to avoid Fixed Charge Penalty Notices (FCPNs). They were saying that they couldn't see the speed limit or the traffic lights because of these signs."

In Summer 2015 Sgt Woods began to look into the signage and what he uncovered shocked him.

He soon realised that there was a "considerable amount of organisation" involved in the operation.

"It soon became apparent that the signs were colour coded and those behind it had the city carved out amongst themselves."

He explained: "For example the signs covering Tallaght were blue, the signs in Rathfarnham were purple and so on. The mobile phone numbers on each sign were different and referred to the operator behind that specific area.

"There were at least four different colours and there were around half a dozen people, all with close links to each other, involved in the operation."

Many of these individuals were found to be active criminals involved in the trading of vehicles for cash.

Sgt Woods put together Operation Sign-Off as part of the ‘Safer Roads for Dublin’ strategy, with the dual objectives of reducing ‘Distracted Driving’ and removing the income potential for those involved in this illegal practice.

He found a little known law that prohibited the erection, placement or retention of signs on public roads without the consent of the roads authority.

Armed with this legislation and working with local authorities gardaí removed more that 450 signs on six dates between May and November 2015. Sting operations offering unmarked garda vehicles for sale were put in place to identify the culprits responsible for the signs.

Sgt Woods explained that most of those behind the scam stopped once they were warned by gardaí but one individual persisted.

John McDonagh (24), with an address at Sillogue Green in Ballymun, was summonsed to appear before Blanchardstown District Court in September 2016. Here he was found guilty of 28 offences contrary to Section 71 of the Roads Act 1993. He was fined €5,600, reduced on appeal to €1,400, and jailed for three months.

McDonagh, who has previous theft convictions, appealed but his custodial sentence in March 2017 but the judge upheld the District Court decision.

Sgt Woods said operation Sign-Off is continuing and over the last number of months they have targeted garages around Dublin city centre that have used cars and signage in public areas to advertise services.

"This legislation, Section 71 of the Road Traffic Act, has been used to shut down these buyers and it has been successful. These signs have effectively disappeared. However, we remain vigilant and will continue the work of Operation Sign-Off."

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