Internet Spawns a Demolition Derby With a Wrinkle
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Think the Internet has changed your life? Try spending a day dealing with junked cars.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Roger W. Moore is shopping for wrecks. They've crashed on the region's roads and been towed to a sprawling auction lot in Waldorf, almost 30 miles south of downtown Washington.
Moore isn't actually at the auction lot. No reason to be.
He is down the road, inside his office, placing bids online. Drawing on a Marlboro, the 44-year-old stares at a flat-screen monitor, clicking away.
Before him: photos and descriptions of the smashed cars that attract bids from countries that two years ago he couldn't have imagined bidding against: Ukraine . . . Lebanon . . . the United Arab Emirates . . . Nigeria . . . Bolivia. Bidders from countries such as these have figured out how to buy Washington's damaged cars, ship them overseas, repair them and sell them for a profit.
On his screen, Moore spots a wreck he wants, and pounces: a 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan, with part of its front mangled after 103,813 miles on the road.
He wants it for the same reason he always wants wrecks, to tow them to one of two area salvage yards -- commonly but less accurately known as junkyards -- that are owned by his family. One is in Clinton, the other in King George, Va. When the wrecks get to the yards, workers pull out valuable parts such as motors and transmissions, store them in warehouses and over time sell them to area mechanics.
With all the foreign buyers, pushing up prices, Moore generally must pay more for wrecks. He clicks $950 for the minivan. He grows nervous that he's offering too much.
Two thousand miles south, Henry Lara keeps clicking. The Honduran has had a good day, winning four vehicles from Waldorf -- a Kia Rio, Mazda 626, Hyundai Sonata and PT Cruiser. Lara, a 32-year-old former wholesale chicken salesman, runs an auto repair shop and buys 25 to 35 U.S. cars online a month, most from around Washington.
With slightly more than half of them, he said, a middleman chops them up for parts and gets them into containers on an ocean barge to Honduras. The rest are shipped to him whole, so he can rebuild and sell them.
Lara doesn't speak English. But he can follow the numbers. He clicks $1,050 for the minivan.
Moore stares at the bid, his finger hovering over his mouse. Going once, going twice . . . sold, to the Honduran.