DETROIT – Criminals are putting a new twist on car theft: they're looking to steal your car's identity. Could your car be cloned? Since last July, about 600 vehicles with duplicated vehicle identification numbers (VINs) have been seized.
The thieves are stealing identification numbers of luxury cars and SUVs to put them on stolen automobiles, in effect laundering the hot cars so they won't be easily traced. Stolen vehicles with legitimate IDs are much easier to register at state motor vehicle departments.
Since last July, about 600 vehicles with duplicated VINs have been seized, said Ivan Blackman of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The bureau is a non-profit fraud investigative service funded by insurance companies. Blackman said there have been at least 10 arrests since January in connection with VIN thievery.
From Michigan to Florida and New York to Iowa, thieves are trolling through mall parking lots, car dealer showrooms and Internet auction sites in search of identification numbers belonging to cars that are similar in make, model and year to recently stolen vehicles.
The difficult-to-detect scams have turned car theft "from a street crime into a white-collar crime," said Dennis Schulkins, a State Farm insurance claim consultant.
Many cars with altered VINs are sold to other criminals. But unsuspecting auto auction houses, car dealers and consumers also have been duped, meaning that the car you buy from a reputable dealer might eventually be tracked down by police as a stolen car. In those cases, insurance companies cover any losses, which ultimately are passed onto consumers in the form of higher rates and fees.
In March, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist announced arrests in a two-year investigation, dubbed Operation Road Runner, that cracked a car theft ring allegedly responsible for cloning more than 250 cars worth $8 million.
The Florida car thieves enlisted the help of corrupt title clerks to allegedly forge signatures of owners of cars whose VINs were stolen to apply for a duplicate title. Cars stolen with phony identification aren't detected until an insurance company, the insurance crime bureau or the police discover that there are two or more vehicles with the same VIN that are registered to people in different places.
The insurance crime bureau learned of cloned cars three years ago when a wave of cars coming into the U.S. had the same VINs as cars that were still in Canada.
Police and insurance companies are seeing an increase in cloned vehicles, usually late-model luxury cars and SUVs. The sophistication of the thefts makes them hard to detect. A vehicle's VIN is a unique identifier that differentiates a car from thousands of others that are of the same make or model. Thieves can glean the VINs from the Internet or even from strolling into an auto dealership and scribbling down the numbers from cars in a showroom. The thief can put the pilfered VIN on a stolen vehicle that can then be sold to other criminals or to unsuspecting dealers and consumers. Such fraud isn't detected unless insurance companies or police realize, mostly through database searches or tips, that more than one car has the same VIN and is registered in a different city, state or even a different country.