You’ve always known your car has an identity. What you didn’t know is that it can be stolen. No, your car doesn’t have a Social Security number but, if it was manufactured after 1981, it has a VIN — a 17-character vehicle identification number. Do you know your vehicle’s VIN or even where it can be found?

You should. In recent months, the term “auto theft” has sprouted a new variation, known as “VIN theft,” “VIN cloning” or “auto identity theft.” Whichever you prefer, it’s a costly and complicated problem for some car dealers and car buyers.

Of the 1.5 million vehicles stolen last year, 225,000 were used in VIN-theft activity, says Dan Kahn, road test editor for Edmunds.com and Insideline.com.

In this new genre of the crime, your automobile stays with you but the VIN is duplicated on another vehicle — usually one that is stolen or used in a different state.

Dave Badger, executive director of stolencarreports.com, says the VIN could also be used on vehicles that have been totaled or ones that are exported.

A person in possession of your vehicle’s VIN can have duplicates made of your keys, register multiple vehicles with the same identification number, and create a world of trouble for legitimate car owners.

What’s a VIN?
Vehicle identification numbers are based on the requirements of the
Federal Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard. All VINs since 1981 have carried 17 characters, and should be evident on as many as 12 or 14 different parts of a vehicle. The most-conspicuous spots are on the dashboard and the driver-side door panel.

“VIN theft is more about paperwork than it is about the number itself,” says Kahn. The VIN is put on “forged replicas” of documents required by state motor vehicle departments, or DMVs, in order to register a vehicle similar in make and model to your legitimate automobile.

How you find out
You will have no way of knowing your VIN was stolen until you register your new vehicle in a state where a clone also exists; or your insurer discovers the VIN duplication; or the police make the discovery and inform you that your car has a clone. At that juncture, you may be considered a suspect unless you have indisputable evidence that your car is the original.

The aftermath will differ for victims, depending on how the vehicles are used, says James Spiller, executive director of SRS Consulting Group. His example: If a vehicle is used as collateral, and later reported stolen, all vehicles bearing that VIN will be impounded by police. The owners — of clones and originals — will, at the very least, be without the use of their respective cars for an extended period. He says proving that your vehicle is an original can require going back to the manufacturer for records on the date and place of original shipment. If you’re in Minnesota and Ford’s records say your Taurus was shipped to a dealer in Minnesota, you’re in a better position than the guy in California claiming the same VIN number for his car.

Secure your papers
It is very important for vehicle owners to keep the title and payment receipts in a secure place. You will need this paperwork if you become a victim of VIN theft.

Kahn believes it’s difficult to protect yourself against this type of victimization for a couple of reasons. The first is timing. “The clones often get registered before the legitimate vehicles do,” he says.

He explains that criminals with the intent to steal VINs often strike at the point of import — the wharfs — where imported vehicles first hit the shores of America. The VIN can be obtained through a brief visit to the port, looking through the windshields of the many vehicles there and jotting the number down. Then with the appropriate forged documents, other vehicles similar in make and model to those on the docks will be registered at DMVs in the United States before the imported ones ever touch their tires to road. Later, when those vehicles reach dealerships and consumers buy them, the VINs will already have been in use.

Secondly, DMVs are “not yet communicating daily with each other via their databases,” says Kahn. That makes it possible for a single VIN to be used on 10 vehicles in 10 states without the respective offices realizing there is duplication. In this way, Kahn says, it’s easy for the criminals. All they have to do is cross state lines and the problem goes undetected for months or years.

However, Badger says the police have access to a nationwide database. With a little effort, a police officer can uncover information on stolen vehicles.

What’s a consumer to do?
There isn’t much a person can do to prevent this from happening, but Kahn offers a few suggestions.

  • Purchase vehicles from well-known dealerships only. “They are partially responsible for the authenticity of the vehicle and in some cases have supplied replacement vehicles,” he says.
  • Do your own background check using
    carfax.com or a similar source to find out if it has a salvage title, which means it shouldn’t be driven on U.S. roads. Also determine what t
    he true year of manufacture is, the original color, and if it was ever reported stolen and recovered.

Badger knows of no law that requires a dealer to replace or compensate a victim for their loss unless they’re complicit in selling stolen vehicles. However, if the dealer has also been duped, usually they will take responsibility to protect their reputations, he says. They wouldn’t want to be known for supplying a stolen vehicle and not making it right.

Before-you-buy precautions
Badger offers the following precautions you can take with your vehicle or one you intend to purchase:

  • Be cautious of a seller with no fixed address of employment or phone number.
  • Ensure the VIN plate on the automobile dash is present, secure, and has no loose rivets. If the VIN plate is scratched, bent or missing rivets, tampering may have occurred.
  • Thieves may remove the VIN plate and replace it with one from a similar wrecked vehicle. If in doubt about plate authenticity, check with a new-car dealer who handles the same model, or contact a law enforcement agency.
  • Ensure that the VIN plate has not been repainted and the numbers stamped in the plate appear to be original factory numbers.
  • The VIN on the dash must match the VIN on the registration, title and federal safety inspection sticker on the driver’s door.

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