Car Sales Scam to Look Out For

Written on:January 15, 2011
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“Argh! I cannot even sell my car, because I don’t really own it”. What would you do if you bought your dream car, then after the sale find out that it’s been reported as stolen by the previous owner…and there’s a recovery company in your driveway getting ready to repossess it, right from your driveway?  

A typical VIN tag

It’s a scam that’s increasing in frequency across the U.S., through a process called VIN cloning.

The process works like this.  Somone steals a vehicle, then “clones” the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of a different car, but one with the same model, year, and usually, paint color.  The “cloned” VIN, of course, doesn’t have an active police report out on it, and nobody is looking for it. Perhaps it’s the sluggish economy that’s spawned this creative, but devious, new practice.

There are many approaches the thieves can take to reuse an existing VIN number. Most typical? The scam artist steals a vehicle, then finds a car in a large parking lot, like a mall, that’s the same year, make and model. Then, they peer into the lower driver’s side of the windshield, and read the VIN number that’s embedded in a metal label on the dashboard.  Now, they have a metal fabrication shop create a new metal VIN plate with that number and install it in the stolen car.  There’s even a thriving overseas market where these “replacement VIN plates” can be purchased for next to nothing.

Installing the replacement plate can be a bit of a challenge, since it’s wedged tightly in the narrow space between the dashboard and the bottom of the windshield.  But, the scam artists can be pretty creative, resorting to specialty tools like flexible drills, magnets on long probes, and a combination of adhesives and “fake rivets”.  And, if the car is particularly valuable, they may even remove the dashboard temporarily to achieve a factory-installed look.

Our advice? Look in the other locations where the VIN is stamped into the car.  The locations vary by model, but it’s easy enough to look up on the internet.  Many models of cars also store the VIN in the car’s computer, and can be extracted with a tool commonly kept at many auto parts stores.

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