Several years ago Michael Rogers bought a Mercedes four-door sedan from a dealer he found on eBay in Kansas City, Mo. on an impulse buy, spending $16,000 for the three-year old car.
Rogers wasn’t aware that thieves had actually stolen the car from a judge previously by snatching his car keys from a gym locker. When Rogers brought his car to the Mercedes dealership for an oil change, the employees entered in the VIN, the 17-digit number that identifies all cars, and told him the car was only serviced the week before.
It turns out the car thieves had used a label maker for the VIN and gave the car a new identity. When the dealership employees plugged the car into the code scanner, they found out that the VINs did not match.
The number of cases like these of thieves cloning VINs and using them on stolen cars is rising, as this fraud is becoming more lucrative. Victims are often left without a vehicle -- because law enforcement must seize the car as evidence -- while still being responsible for any unpaid auto loans, losing an average of $25,000 to $30,000, said Chris Basso, a used car expert for Carfax, the Centreville, Va.-based company that provides vehicle history reports.
“A VIN is like your car’s Social Security number, and cloning it is one of the fastest growing used car scams,” he said. “With technology improving fast and furiously, the means for criminals to clone a vehicle has become a lot easier and quicker to do.”
Purchasing a used car involves more research nowadays, because criminals have become adept at tampering with titles, rolling back odometers and cloning VINs for stolen vehicles.
Rogers was faced without any recourse and was not able to obtain restitution because the police and prosecutors could not prove his case and he was still forced to pay his auto loan each month.
In 2014, the FBI said 689,527 motor vehicle thefts occurred and 74.5% were cars. Neither the Department of Justice nor the FBI keeps track of the number of cloned VINs.
Very few law enforcement agencies nationwide have a dedicated group who investigates auto theft and its spin-off crimes, said Corporal Nate Bradley of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Determining the number of cars which have their VINs cloned is not easy to establish because not all the cases are reported or discovered, but thousands are likely cloned each month in the U.S., he said.
“Nobody wins, because the victims lose the car and the finance and insurance companies also lose their money,” Bradley said. “We all end up paying for these frauds through increased insurance premiums. It’s a huge travesty that there is no dedicated funding source for investigators for auto theft since the criminals will always be a step ahead of law enforcement.”
Telltale Signs of Cloned Cars
One method commonly used by car thieves is to steal a car and manipulate the vehicle’s documents by using the VIN of a similar car, said Basso. This will mask the identification of the stolen vehicle which is resold often on Craigslist to unsuspecting consumers. Cloning a stolen vehicle and moving them to other states is more profitable than chopping them up and selling individual stolen parts, he said.
“It’s easier to clone these cars and move to them to other areas of country,” Basso said. “It is eye-opening in how simple the fraud is to commit.”
The VINs in some cars are placed onto stickers and not stamped onto metal pieces. Fabricating the VIN from one car and stamping or printing in a new VIN plate or stickers can be easily replicated, he said. Most manufacturers place the VIN on the dashboard and the driver’s side door jamb as well as the engine block. The other locations are hidden and only known to law enforcement.
“You can make the stolen car take on a whole new identity,” Basso said.
Many manufacturers, including GM and Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge, along with BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes, are using stickers for the VINs and not metal VIN plates which are harder to plagiarize, said Bradley. Ford, Toyota and Honda are still using laser etched or raised letters for their VIN plates, which are attached to the dashboard.
“It makes it way easier for a scammer to use a label maker to retag the car, since some of them are not plates any longer,” he said.
Spotting the scam is not simple unless you examine the vehicle’s history and look for multiple registrations in different states during short periods of time, he said. Consumers should also look for varying odometer readings, because the cars likely won’t have the same mileage. The service records and accident reports in different states are telltale signs as well.
“Unless you are looking at the history, it is almost impossible to spot the scam on your own,” Basso said. “A good percentage of stolen cars will be cloned to make more money.”
The other side of the scam is the victims who find out their car were cloned when they attempt to trade in or sell their vehicle. When the buyer runs a Carfax report or uses another database, a car in Rhode Island could show records registered in states such as Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin, tipping off the true owner that a clone occurred.
Other consumers become victims when they unwittingly purchase a used car that has been stolen. Some owners do not find out until the police have tracked down the car seize it as evidence in a case.
“Eventually, they knock on your door and are coming for the car to keep,” Basso said. “If you took out a loan, you are left holding the bag on that loan and no longer have a car. Vehicle history is one of the few and most powerful tools that law enforcement, consumers and dealers have in combating this crime.”
The credit scores of consumers can be affected, because they must still make payments for the first loan and potentially a second one to replace the stolen car that was seized by the police, straining the budgets of many consumers who are saddled already with credit card debt or student loans.
Many car thieves are targeting higher end vehicles because there is a higher profit margin and “more room to adjust the price,” he said. “They can steal a $50,000 car, ask $35,000 for it and walk away with that money from someone who thinks they just got a great deal.”
While this scam is nationwide, many of the cloned cars seem to stem from Florida while numerous cases have been found in Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Texas, Basso said.
Other criminals go to salvage yards, buy inexpensive junk cars and pop off the VINs. Their next move is to steal another car whose make and model are similar, conduct a title wash scheme and retag the car with the VIN from the junk car and sell the car off of Craigslist to unsuspecting drivers.
Many of these fraudsters move the cars around in various states to avoid detection, especially on expensive SUVs like the GMC Yukons and Cadillac Escalades, resulting in massive losses, said Bradley.
“Carfax can spot when two vehicles with the same VIN are titled in two states at the same time,” he said. “It will say there is a clone alert. I had found that Carfax is 100% correct when they say there is a problem.”
Many drivers wind up becoming victims to expensive scams like odometer fraud or VIN cloning by “not carefully considering who they’re buying from or doing enough to research the car they’re buying,” Basso said.