Honda Civic for $1800, low mileage, must sell; real or a clone?

By Robb Hicken/ BBB chief storyteller

Classified listings work by putting seller and buyer together. As sellers started sharing their wares online, the shift from vetted classified advertising in newspapers and magazines dwindled. In 2012, classified advertising slumped 9%, according to the  Newspapers Association of America.

Where do you shop for a used car? Online auto websites? Online classified websites? Used car dealerships?

You see a classified ad for a late-model luxury used car – a BMW, Lexus, Porsche or Cadillac Escalade. But the price advertised is thousands of dollars under what you would expect to pay. When you call the seller, he says that his family has large medical bills or credit card debt and he needs cash quickly. You cannot believe your luck!

You jump at the bargain, meet to inspect the car, transfer the titles at the state motor vehicle office and pay him the cash. He disappears with your $20,000 (or more) and you enjoy driving your beautiful luxury car for a few days – until the police knock on your door and tell you that the car you are driving is stolen! You have just lost your cash and your car and joined the ranks of victims of a growing scam called vehicle identification number (VIN) cloning.

State motor vehicle offices need a VIN to register a vehicle, and the number is also recorded on a car or truck’s title. A VIN cloner takes the unique identification number from a legally owned or junked vehicle and uses it to forge documents for a stolen vehicle of a similar make and model. CARFAX, a business that sells vehicle history information, estimates that more than 225,000 of the 1.5 million vehicles stolen each year end up with VINs from a legally owned vehicle and are resold. According to CARFAX calculations, VIN cloning costs consumers and insurance companies $4 billion each year.

VIN cloners typically steal VINs from high-end, luxury vehicles and expensive SUVs because they can command a higher price in the used-car market than standard makes and models. The numbers are often stolen by thieves strolling through parking lots (VINs may be found on the dashboard, driver’s side door jamb, rear-wheel well or engine) or through Internet classified advertisements and auctions.

Once they have a legitimate VIN, the thieves find a vehicle with similar characteristics and steal it. Sometimes they punch out a new VIN and replace the stolen vehicle’s dash VIN with the new one. Or they use computer technology to print out authentic looking documents with phony VINs. The last step is selling the vehicle, usually through classified ads or other informal methods. Some altered vehicles end up in auctions or on unsuspecting used-car lots.

This type of scam artist preys on middle-income consumers who are thrilled to get a great deal on an expensive vehicle. To help prevent falling victim to VIN cloning, the Better Business Bureau suggests the following:

  • Be extremely cautious if you see a late-model luxury car selling under normal market price.
  • Do not fall for the “we need cash quickly” excuse; exercise due diligence.
  • Check the VIN number on the dashboard against the car’s title documents. If there is a discrepancy, that is a definite red flag.
  • Make certain the dashboard VIN number also matches the number under the hood and at the door jamb on the driver’s side.
  • Closely check the car’s title, registration and other documents. Fake documents sometimes contain misspelled words, which points to something amiss.
  • If you still have questions about the vehicle’s VIN, get a comprehensive vehicle history report.

If you think you may be a victim of VIN cloning, contact your local police department.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Honda Civic for $1800, low mileage, must sell; real or a clone?

  1. Mark Burrows

    In this day and age, it is probably best to deal with car dealers. Many new car dealers have used cars on their lot that they took in trade and often more than not will sell it less than what an all used car lot will simply because they are in the business of selling new cars, and the used cars although are more profitable are a distraction from the product they are representing and a drop in sales of their own product brings trouble to the dealership from the parent company.
    Here is another way dealers handle traded in cars, they sell them off to used car brokers. So, as a tip, hang around an auto mall. It won’t take long to track these brokers down because they will usually have contracts with all the dealers to inspect and repair these cars. So, if he picks up a used Honda at a GM dealer and drives it over to the Honda dealer, and then a detail company shows up to clean, vacuum, wax, do some trim work to make the used car look spiffy, that’s your broker. If you are the brave do it yourself kind of person in the repair and clean department, most brokers will sell you the car as low as 10% over what they paid. Fast turnover without having to shell out suits them just fine. If you wait until he has the car repaired and cleaned up, and catch him before he wholesales it off to a used car lot, you will get it a lot less than what the used car dealership will sell it to you for. These brokers love working the big auto malls because they often spend the entire day there and sell 75% of his cars just to staff workers in the Auto mall. What? you think people who work at dealerships can afford to drive new cars even with the discount incentives offered by their company? No intelligent person wishes to be indebted to where they work. So they drive cheap second hand cars as well. They watch for the auto broker driving what ever vehicle into their area of the mall, if they see something they like they go out and talk to him. Brokers sell another 10% of his cars to drive in customers. Will he take your car in trade? Yes, but he won’t give you much, better to either keep it or try to sell it privately.
    I know of such a broker, he learned early not to drive his own car into the auto mall because people run out and ask how much. Too funny.

    Mark Burrows

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