Prince George’s County police arrested five people Wednesday who they say were illegally towing old cars parked in neighborhoods, shopping centers and apartment complexes and selling them for scrap.

The thieves, who appear to have operated separately, nabbed vehicles that were eight years old or more so they could sell them to be demolished at scrap yards without salvage titles, said Cpl. Evan Baxter, a Prince George’s County police spokesman. Together, they are believed to have stolen at least 23 cars over the last two years, and they are charged with 23 counts of auto theft, Baxter said.

Investigators were tipped to the phenomenon about six months ago, after they noticed several vehicles that had been reported stolen turn up in scrap yards, Baxter said. Scrap yards are required to report the VINs of cars they buy to the state, and investigators routinely compare those records to their list of stolen vehicles, Baxter said.

Many of the thieves were legitimate tow truck drivers who would steal legally owned cars and sell them to scrap yards for as much as $400 a piece, passing them off as abandoned, Baxter said. He said police are still investigating what culpability — if any — scrap yards have in the scheme.

Police identified those charged as Paul Butler, 45, of Upper Marlboro; Michael Lindsey, of New Carrollton; Dante Tapp, 29, of Cheverly; James Barber, 33, of Upper Marlboro; and Lori Cook, 31, of Upper Marlboro. Butler was charged with 11 counts of auto theft, Lindsey was charged with 9 counts of auto theft and the rest were charged with one count of auto theft a piece, authorities said.

Investigators are still searching for a sixth suspect, 44-year-old Darall Green, who is believed to have been running the same scheme on vehicles that had broken down on the Capital Beltway, authorities said. He is charged with 11 counts of auto theft, authorities said.