Week 5: VIN Cloning

Fraud Protection


3 min. read

By: FCU Team

Each year, in the United States, almost 1 million cars are stolen. In an attempt to cover up the theft, these vehicles often end up on the black market, with altered Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) or numbers that have been lifted from other vehicles. This type of fraud can be hard to detect and even harder to prevent. Not to mention, it leaves multiple victims in its wake and in the end we all pay the price, via increases in insurance premiums. While it can be hard to stop it from happening altogether, you can learn what to look for and how to protect yourself.

According to Tom Froelich, a retired Police Investigator from Chicago, Car Fax history reports are the primary resource that law enforcement agencies rely on when trying verify a vehicle’s background, but there are other telltale signs that can help you identify a potentially cloned VIN.

Starting in 1954, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required that all road vehicles, manufactured in 1981 or later, be assigned a standardized identification number. This number provides details about the vehicle, including manufacturer, model year and where it was built. Similar to the makeup of your driver’s license number, each part of a VIN represents something : 


So How Exactly Does This Type of Crime Occur?

It typically starts with the theft of a vehicle but in some cases, thieves may end up in possession of a vehicle with a branded title.  

  • Branded Title: Issued to vehicles that have been salvaged, rebuilt, or restored.
  • Salvage: Vehicles that insurers determine to be damaged to the extent that costs associated with repairing the vehicle for safe operation exceed its value.

In order to mask the theft, criminals take the VIN of a similar make/model and create counterfeit VIN plates and install them on the vehicle.

Example of a Real Case:

Consumer purchases a 3-year-old Mercedes that he found online for $16k. When he brought the car to the dealership for service, they checked the VIN and told him that the car was serviced the week before. The dealer plugged the car in the code scanner and saw the VINs did not match. It was clear that the consumer was in possession of a cloned vehicle. He learned that the criminals stole the car keys from a gym locker.  The consumer lost the vehicle and was out the money. Individuals who experience VIN cloning lose an average of $25-30k.

Where to Start: 

A vehicle might be one of the largest purchases you will make so it’s important to cover all bases before taking the leap and making such a large investment. So first things first, where do you find the car’s VIN?  You can usually find it on the driver’s side interior dash or under the hood at the front of the engine. Also check over important documents to locate the vehicle’s identification number, check the title, registration, insurance documents, a vehicle history report or the vehicle’s owner’s manual.

What to Look Out For:

The most obvious thing you’ll want to be on the lookout for is a different number. Ask if you can take the vehicle somewhere and have it plugged in to check and verify the VIN. Be sure to check the VIN on the vehicle and match it to the one listed on official documents. Look carefully for typos and slight differences.

Another thing you should be wary about is a vehicle registered in multiple states. Most times people will transfer their registration when they move to a different state. It’s possible that a seller has forgotten, but highly unlikely. If a car is registered in two different states it might mean that a thief is using a VIN that belongs to a legitimate vehicle in another state.

Mileage history is also a good indicator that something fishy might be afoot. Get a vehicle history report for the VIN and verify the mileage matches the vehicle that you’re looking at. This report will also provide you with a history of services performed. If you notice services completed in multiple states or over very short periods of time it could be an indicator that the VIN is registered to multiple vehicles.

When In Doubt, Use Your Resources...

The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free VIN check service to assist in determining if a vehicle has been reported as stolen, but not recovered, or has been reported as a salvage. You’ll just need the VIN to perform a search. Also, don’t hesitate to ask if you can take the vehicle to a professional mechanic to make sure you’re covering all of your bases.

I Might Be a Victim, What Now?

If you suspect that you might be a victim of vehicle or auto fraud, contact authorities immediately.

  • Call 800-835-6422.
  • Text “FRAUD" and your anonymous tip to TIP411.

As always, be cautious. If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. If a vehicle is being sold far below its value or things aren't adding up, don't be afraid to ask questions



VIN Cloning and Auto Lending - Tom Froelich