Vehicle identification number (VIN) cloning is a growing form of auto theft that leaves many innocent victims in its wake.
As a former car dealer, I’ve seen the financial and legal nightmares this crime causes regular people, and I wrote this guide so that you can better understand how VIN cloning works, how to protect yourself when buying a used vehicle, and what’s being done industry-wide to curb this threat.
Relevant Articles To Read:
- Red Flags or Signs Of a Car Scam
- 13 Car Buying Scams To Watch Out For
- How To Buy a Car From a Private Seller
- Lookup Vin Scam (Fake Vehicle History Reports)
- VIN cloning uses stolen VINs to conceal stolen vehicles’ pasts
- Innocent used car buyers can have vehicles seized and still owe loans
- Red flags include too-good-to-be-true pricing and title errors
- Independently verify VIN history before purchase
- Law enforcement and databases aim to curb cloning rates
Table of Contents
What is VIN Cloning & How Does it Work?
VIN cloning involves stealing the unique 17-digit VIN from a legally registered vehicle and using it to conceal the identity of a stolen or salvaged car.
By replacing the VIN on a stolen car with a number taken from a vehicle of a similar make, model, and year from another state, criminals can make the car appear legitimate.
They then create convincing counterfeit ownership documents and resell the stolen vehicle under its new VIN identity through private sales and shady dealers. It leaves subsequent buyers unaware they purchased an illegally obtained car.
The Rising Threat of VIN Cloning
- Over 1,000 cloned vehicles were uncovered in an FBI Florida case spanning 20 states and causing $27 million in losses
- Canada reports VIN cloning has grown with tech advances enabling larger theft rings
- A major challenge is the “large scale threat with innocent victims” it produces
While comprehensive statistics are lacking, law enforcement cases prove VIN cloning affects large numbers of car buyers annually across North America.
Documented Incidents of Vin Cloning Fraud:
Mike Cella, a retired teacher, had his Dodge Ram confiscated by police a year after he bought it when they discovered it was a cloned truck. Cella lost the $30,000 he paid and was still financing the vehicle.
An Edmonton man lost $20,000 he scrimped and saved for a used truck that was later seized as part of a cloning scam. He lost the vehicle but is still paying off the loan.
These stories illustrate the financial nightmare VIN cloning produces.
Red Flags to Spot Potential VIN Cloned Cars
When buying a used car, especially from an individual seller, beware of:
- Substantially below-market pricing
- Seller unable to provide a vehicle history report
- Signs of VIN plate tampering on the dashboard
- Errors or inconsistencies in ownership paperwork
- Curbstoner “for sale by owner” sellers
Use your intuition. If an incredible deal seems questionable, walk away. Thoroughly vet both car and seller before purchase.
Running a VIN Check is Critical
Verify that the VIN plates match what’s on the paperwork and scan plates for evidence of tampering. Even tiny scratches by the VIN plate should raise concerns.
Ongoing Efforts to Curb VIN Cloning
Law enforcement agencies like the FBI actively investigate and prosecute VIN cloning fraud rings when found. Vehicle history databases also help prevent duplicate VINs from being registered across states.
My Final Thoughts
While technology aids these thieves, it also helps protect consumers. Being an aware, proactive buyer is your best defense against buying a cloned car.
Stay vigilant when buying used vehicles. Following these tips will help you avoid the financial nightmare of unknowingly purchasing a VIN cloned car.
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