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The secret life of your car's VIN





Your car's vehicle identification number, commonly known as a VIN, may look like a meaningless string of random numbers and letters.

But together those 17 digits make up an impressive one-of-a-kind combination, following the car from the factory to the scrap heap.

"A VIN is to a car what a fingerprint is to a person," says Frank Scafidi, spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

A variety of agencies and companies use VINs to report and access information about vehicles. Thanks to the VIN, a car insurance company can check whether a car has a salvage title, a body shop can order the right parts for repairs and police can identify stolen vehicles.

You can find your car's VIN on the dashboard near the windshield and inside the doorframe on the driver's side. On some cars, the VIN is located on additional parts, such as the bumpers or steering column. The locations are based on the car's theft risk and are standardized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The VIN also appears on documents, such as your car title, registration and auto insurance ID card.

Decoding a VIN

Automakers started using various forms of identification numbers in 1954, and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration standardized VINs in 1981 so no car could be mistaken for another. All cars made since then have VINs that follow the same format. CarFax Inc., which sells vehicle-history reports based on VINs, offers a handy VIN decoder on its website:

  • The first digit tells the country where the vehicle was made. A 1, 4 or 5 is used for the United States.
  • The second digit tells who made it. For example, A is for Audi, Jaguar or Mitsubishi. B is for BMW or Dodge. C is for Chrysler and so on.
  • The third digit tells the vehicle's type or manufacturing division.
  • Digits four through eight give information about the vehicle's model, such as body style, engine type, transmission or other parts, depending on the manufacturer.
  • Known as a "check digit," the ninth digit is the result when the other digits are plugged into a formula developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Computers can tell if a VIN is invalid if the check digit doesn't match the result of the formula.
  • The 10th digit is the vehicle's model year. Letters and numbers 0 through 9 are used to denote the year -- 2014 is E -- and are recycled every 30 years. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z are never used.
  • The 11th digit indicates the manufacturing plant where the vehicle was assembled. Each automaker has its own plant codes.
  • Digits 12 through 17 make up a number created by the manufacturer. The number may indicate the order in which the vehicle came off the assembly line.

VINs and car insurance

You can get initial car insurance quotes for a vehicle without its VIN, but you'll have to supply the VIN to buy a policy. The insurance company will check the VIN to make sure the vehicle has never been declared a total loss. Some car insurance companies won't sell insurance for vehicles with salvage titles.

When you register the vehicle, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will make sure the VIN on your insurance ID card matches your vehicle's VIN to confirm that it's properly insured. Most states require car owners to carry insurance.

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