Police departments and offices of the state attorney generals are warning consumers about a newly emerging threat, this one involving the purchase of a used vehicle. It seems that con artists have figured out a way to tamper with the VIN – vehicle identification number – on some cars and are passing off stolen goods as legitimate. When the bogus deal is uncovered, unsuspecting buyers lose a car as well as whatever they paid for the transaction.
Every vehicle has a vehicle identification number (VIN) which is prominently affixed to the dashboard of the car. This number reveals a host of information about the vehicle including the owner, car history and the like. When a buyer is shopping for a used car and chooses to use a service such as Carfax to learn about the vehicle’s history, it should turn up accurate information about that vehicle.
Changed VIN Means Big Trouble
However, thieves have learned the perfect way to scam buyers – steal a car and then change the VIN to match the number on a legitimate car. When the buyer runs a report to verify ownership, history, repairs and the like, a clean record is returned. Moreover, when the buyer takes the car to be registered with the state as well as to secure insurance, then it passes these tests too.
The problem often surfaces a few months later when the state runs a routine title test on the vehicle which can reveal that something is wrong. For instance, although a car has a VIN on the dashboard, manufacturers hide duplicates of the VIN in other parts of the car. Therefore, the VIN on the dash won’t match the VIN found elsewhere with the car, proving that something is amiss.
A Hot Car Means You Are Out Of Cash
On closer inspection the state can learn that the car has been stolen and state law requires that the stolen property be returned to its rightful owner, meaning that the buyer is out whatever cash he paid for the vehicle. As you might guess, that amount is usually many thousands of dollars.
To counter the growing problem which has been labeled VIN cloning, consider the following:
Know the seller – In one case, the buyer found an ad on Craigslist which listed the details about the car. The buyer contacted the seller, met him in person, ran the report and closed the deal. Two months later the truth about the car was revealed and the buyer was out of a car and out of the $6000 he paid for it.
Know the price – Most thieves will be in a hurry to unload hot goods, therefore they’ll price it to sell quickly. This usually means that a stolen car will be priced for thousands of dollars under its book value, a strong hint that something is not quite right.
Know the venue – Again, Craigslist was the site where one buyer found his hot (stolen) car. This doesn’t mean that everything on Craigslist is problematic, but given its anonymity and being that it is a magnet for scams, caution is advised.
In most cases, the buyer of hot goods doesn’t have any recourse unless he is able to track down the seller who probably left town a long time ago. As the old adage goes, “If it is too good to be true, then it probably isn’t” is apparent when buying any used car. If buying privately, you’ll want to know the seller otherwise the risk of being victimized by VIN cloning remains.
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