Car theft used to leave the original car owner as the crime victim, but an old take on selling purloined vehicles is re-emerging in Edmonton. Police there say that the once-rare crime is now about a twice-weekly occurrence. Vehicle identification fraud also makes victims of the unwitting car buyer who, acting in good faith, ends up purchasing a stolen vehicle.

VIN Cloning

Cars sold online, used car lots and even dealers of good reputation are turning up with altered VINs. For the $500 to $1,000 it costs to create counterfeit plates, thieves are able to disguise and register stolen cars, making it simple to sell these through conventional means at large profits. VIN cloning isn’t limited to cars either. Boats, RVs, ATVs, heavy equipment and trailers can also be covered up using VIN fraud.

Without an effective national registry of vehicle numbers in Canada, thieves can harvest VIN data from cars with similar make, model, year and colour to create duplicate VIN plates. The U.S. border is not a boundary either as VINS attached to vehicles in one country may be harvested for use in either.

The VIN Number

The 17 numbers that comprise a VIN hold much information about the car to which it’s originally attached. This VIN format has been used since the 1981 model year. Using codes, the number identifies the manufacturer and company of origin with the first three digits. The next six include five digits to describe the vehicle’s model, body type, restraint system, transmission type and engine code. The sixth digit is a check digit used to detect fraudulent VINS. Position 10 may be a letter or a number, and it indicates the model year. The manufacturing plant is coded in position 11 and the last 6 digits are production sequence numbers, identifying when the car came off the production line.

Check digits won’t reveal a harvested VIN number, since it once matched a legitimate vehicle.

Protecting Yourself Against VIN Fraud

Car Fraud

Techniques can be so sophisticated that it’s nearly impossible to detect a counterfeit VIN for the average used car buyer. The VIN is located several places throughout a vehicle. Checking the number in several locations may reveal different numbers. The most common places to check are:

  • Driver side dash, readable through the windshield in the bottom corner
  • On the front of the engine block
  • On the car frame near the windshield washer fluid containter
  • Rear wheel wells, above the tire
  • Driver side door jamb, near where the rear view mirror would be with the door closed
  • Driver side door post, near the door latch
  • Underneath the spare tire

These locations are chosen in part for the reason that regular wear is unlikely to damage the VIN. Any sign of suspicious wear should be noted, as this may indicate a poor counterfeit job.

Search used car VINs online. A harvested number may be used more than once, so if a search turns up other used cars for sale with the same VIN, you’re likely dealing with a stolen vehicle.