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.