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Vehicle Cloning: Stolen Vehicles Hiding in Plain Sight

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author photo by Russ Heaps July 2016

Not all stolen vehicles wind up on container ships to the Middle East or in chop shops, hacked up for parts. A higher-tech form of car theft is gaining popularity among thieves willing to invest more time and effort into their scheme. The experts at the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a nonprofit organization tasked with combating insurance fraud and crime, identifies this very specialized form of vehicle theft as cloning.

What Is Cloning?

Cloning is when two very similar vehicles, let's say two examples of a 2015 Mercedes-Benz S550, share a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Here's the thing, each VIN is unique when assigned to a car as it's assembled at the factory. As with your Social Security number, its VIN forms the basis for identifying that specific vehicle for the rest of its life. You can find your vehicle's VIN on a plate located on the dashboard at the base of the windshield on the driver's side. It is also on other hidden plates scattered around the vehicle.

Our two S550s don't have the same VIN by accident. Each began life with a unique VIN but one of the S550s, after being stolen, had its VIN replaced by thieves. The intent: masking the stolen S550's status. Any casual research of the stolen VIN will produce the records of the other S550 still safely in the hands of its legitimate owner, leaving the researcher unaware that the car he or she is buying is actually stolen.

How Do They Do It?

Specializing in vehicle-history reports, CARFAX has become quite familiar with the ins and outs of vehicle cloning. Its spokesperson Chris Basso recently told Autotrader that law enforcement believes cloning to currently be the biggest used-car scam. He said during the past 5 years CARFAX has uncovered more than 300 vehicles believed to be clones, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Like cockroaches, for every one you find, there are hundreds more hiding.

But how do thieves do it? How do they come up with a VIN to duplicate for a vehicle that's a close match with the one just stolen?

They do it the old-fashioned way, Basso said. They wander parking lots and cruise the streets until they find a similar model, capture the VIN in a photo on a smart phone and then produce a new VIN plate that they attach to the stolen car. They also falsify any required paperwork using the stolen VIN. Once the clone finds its way into the hands of an unsuspecting buyer, years can pass before the scam is discovered. And then, it's often by accident.

Who Suffers?

With any car theft, the original owner and, by extension, the insurance carrier covering the loss, is victimized. However, anyone buying a cloned vehicle stands a good chance of becoming a victim, as well. Even if an owner, believing a car is a legitimate used vehicle, unwittingly buys a cloned car, he'll be left holding the bag when the deception is discovered. Authorities will seize the stolen vehicle, eventually returning it to its rightful owner; while the duped buyer is left with no vehicle and the balance on a car loan that must be paid.

How to Avoid the Cloning Trap

Here are a few simple precautions to avoid buying one of the cloned stolen vehicles:

  • Beware if the price of a used car sounds too good to be true.
  • Always run a check on the VIN and get a mechanical inspection as well.
  • Whenever buying a used car, use the NICB's free VINCheck service.
  • Engage one of the vehicle-history-report services like CARFAX or AutoCheck to run a background check.

What it means to you: Simply stated, buyer beware.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Vehicle Cloning: Stolen Vehicles Hiding in Plain Sight - Autotrader