Auto dealers and buyers hoodwinked by VIN switching: Internet Scambusters #594
Unique vehicle identification numbers (VINs) are being used in a car theft scam known as VIN switching.
Crooks use genuine numbers from other vehicles to disguise the true identity of stolen cars, and their work is so good they even fool legitimate auto dealers, as we explain in this week’s issue.
We also stay with the car theme for our news alert of the week — a warning about deceptive dealer advertising.
Let’s get started…
VIN Switching: Identity Theft for Autos
It’s not just us humans that are identity theft targets — it happens to autos too, only then it’s called VIN switching.
VIN is your unique Vehicle Identification Number, etched on labels that are supposed to be permanently fixed to the body and other parts of your car.
It’s the only, mostly reliable, way of being able to accurately trace a vehicle’s history and help to confirm title ownership.
It’s totally illegal to change a VIN — even for restorers who might be building a car from numerous different parts.
That even applies to vintage motorcycles, which are often rebuilt from “cannibalized” parts.
(What owners should do faced with that situation is beyond the scope of this report. You can get advice on that from your state motor vehicle department.)
More worrying is the incidence of criminal VIN switching to either disguise a vehicle’s true history or to conceal the fact that the car has been stolen.
The bad news is that sometimes, VIN-switched cars have been sold by perfectly respectable dealers who were totally unaware of the crime themselves.
Even worse, if you buy a car in good faith that turns out to have been stolen and VIN switched, you could end up out the total cost of the vehicle unless you can persuade a legitimate seller to give you a refund.
Compared with many other scams, VIN switching is comparatively sparse. After a recent report from Minnesota, the state’s investigator for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) said he encountered about 100 cases a year.
That might suggest several thousand cases a year across the United States as a whole.
That means, though, that the crime has flown below the radar of many consumer-watch groups, and victims are usually left helpless to do anything about it.
However, it’s definitely on the rise. A recent bust of a VIN switching ring in Florida found that more than a thousand vehicles had been stolen and “doctored” to conceal their true identity.
Nor is it always possible to detect a VIN switch, with the result that a vehicle might change hands several times without any owner realizing their car is “hot.”
Often, the crime only comes to light when big-time car thieves are arrested and their activities are thoroughly investigated, or when two identical VINs are recorded in different states.
According to the NICB, the most common crime is known as the Salvage Switch. A badly damaged car is bought or acquired by a crook using a false name for the title. The vehicle is then officially listed as “salvaged” and the crook uses both the title and the VIN on a similar stolen car.
Another crime, though not really a case of VIN switching, is known as Strip and Run. This is a complex scam in which crooks steal a car and strip it of just about everything that’s removable.
The car is listed by police and insurers as “stolen” and therefore can’t be sold by the thieves.
So, they abandon what’s left — the frame, with its VIN — somewhere it can be found.
Once found by the police, it’s now considered by the authorities as “recovered” and is no longer listed as “stolen.” In other words, it’s a legit auto, just without its parts, and can be sold.
The car frame, its VIN and its title are then usually auctioned off by insurers or police, where — you guessed it — the crooks buy it back.
Then they reinstall all the pieces they removed and suddenly they have a complete, legally owned car, which they can sell.
An even simpler technique is for car thieves to scour parking lots for similar vehicles to the ones they’ve stolen, read the VIN number off the dashboard plate, and then use it to fabricate a new identity for the stolen vehicles.
Check out a 2008 TV news report on this crime (warning, this YouTube video, Vehicle Cloning, may be preceded by an unconnected ad — it has nothing to do with Scambusters).
As we said, it’s not always easy to detect these crimes.
Most vehicles do have a “hidden” VIN label but viewing it usually involves removing the engine, which even legitimate auto dealers are unlikely to do to check its authenticity!
All you can do is be vigilant. Here’s what the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) suggests:
- Look closely at the VIN plate, located on the driver’s side of the dashboard, to see if it appears tampered.
- Never buy a used car without getting the vehicle’s title or pink slip in person; and double check the vehicle identification number with the number listed on the title, the registration papers and the federal certification label on the driver’s side door.
- Ask to see identification of the person who is selling you the car; write down his/her name, address, phone number and driver’s license number for your records.
- Call the phone number given to you by the vehicle’s owner. Often, scam artists will provide the phone number of a random pay phone.
NICB also has a service for law enforcement and insurers to translate VINs, which contain coded information about the vehicle make, model and engine size.
Also, of course, you should be on the alert for car deals that seem too good to be true, extremely low odometer readings, and individual sellers who seem cagey about their identity or address.
News Alert of the Week: Watch out for deceptive advertising when you’re auto-hunting. Even big and respected dealers have been known to flout consumer laws, for example by implying discounts are more widely available than they really are, or simply misrepresenting the true price.
Here’s a recent example reported by the Federal Trade Commission: FTC Halts Two Automobile Dealers’ Deceptive Ads.
Time to conclude for today — have a great week!