As part of Fraud Prevention Month, the Edmonton Police Service is warning car buyers to look out for stolen cars masquerading as legitimate vehicles for sale, which are also known as ‘car clones.’
Car cloning, or VIN cloning, is using a vehicle identification number (VIN) from a legally registered car to hide the identity of a stolen or salvaged vehicle, typically the same make, model and year. The thieves use the stolen VINs to create title documents to register or sell the stolen car. The stolen vehicle becomes an identical clone of the legitimate vehicle with no obvious signs it was stolen.
“Car cloning is similar to personal identity theft,” says Det. Dan Duiker with the EPS Auto Theft Unit. “Each VIN is unique like a fingerprint, but if it can be cloned successfully, the result is two or more vehicles with the same VIN.”
VINs are stamped into metal or plastic plates, or printed on tamper-proof decals, which are visible on the driver’s side of the dashboard below the windshield and on the driver's side door frame. An average thief may alter or reattach a VIN, which may reveal it has been interfered with. But criminal groups use more sophisticated methods to clone vehicles in ‘chop shop’ garages to sell in local or worldwide markets.
“Because these cars look legitimate, it can be hard to get a true picture of the problem, but car cloning is a significant issue on the rise in Canada,” says Dan Service, Director of Investigative Services, Western and Pacific Region, Insurance Bureau of Canada. “Cloning cars is complex work requiring sophisticated skills, equipment, and networks most often linked to organized crime.”
The EPS deals with approximately one to two reports of cloned autos per week. An investigation into one cloned vehicle often leads to the discovery of additional cloned vehicles and a criminal operation.
In 2009, the FBI broke up an interstate car-cloning ring involving 17 individuals, over 1,000 stolen vehicles, and financial losses to victims and insurance companies of $25 million. Closer to home, the Toronto Police Service dismantled a global car-theft ring in 2015 involving 18 individuals and hundreds of stolen vehicles worth $30 million. The Toronto group stole high-end luxury cars and SUVs, copied VINs and key fobs, and resold the vehicles on the black market overseas.
Det. Duiker adds “Cloned autos can be a very lucrative business for criminals. A thief can invest $500 to $1,000 into making a stolen car seem legitimate, and then sell it to an unsuspecting buyer for $10,000 to $50,000 profit. When a used car deal seems too good to be true, or there’s pressure to buy before you’ve done your due diligence, it’s usually a red flag the vehicle is stolen and being sold to turn a fast buck.”
It is believed that one in five stolen vehicles is sold to an unsuspecting victim. If you are unfortunate enough to purchase a stolen / cloned car, you could become part of a police investigation as well as lose the car and the money you paid for it when it is returned to its rightful owner.
Ways to avoid buying a stolen vehicle:
- Carefully examine the public VIN on the vehicle’s dash and frame to ensure they match and have not been tampered with. The VIN should also match title documents and service records.
- Check the VIN on the Canadian Police Information Centre public website.
- Use the Insurance Bureau of Canada's free VIN Verify Service to check if the vehicle was stolen or written-off previously.
- Google the VIN.
- Have a Vehicle Information Report (VIR) done at an Alberta registry office.
- Utilize online services such as CARFAX or CARPROOF. Look for a clone alert, registrations between provinces / states, or mileage that does not match the odometer.
- Ask for proof of ownership and picture identification of the seller. Examine the vehicle’s maintenance records and insurance papers. Look for incorrect spellings, incomplete information, or other inconsistencies.
- Keep detailed records of the transaction. Fill out a Used Vehicle Bill of Sale and record the seller’s phone number (be cautious of cell phone numbers). The vehicle should also have two sets of keys.
- Question prices below market value. Avoid paying cash, pay with a bank draft instead.
- Bring a friend and view the car during the daytime hours at the seller’s residence or a safe public location. Never view the car on the side of the road or at an isolated location.
- Although most private sellers are not thieves, reduce the risks by purchasing from a reputable dealership.
- Have the vehicle inspected by a trusted mechanic or your insurance company.
- Use common sense and good judgement. Don’t allow your desire to buy the vehicle override your intuition. Don’t worry about being polite, ask questions.
Additional information is available online from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, and the Edmonton Police Service.
If you are a victim of a fraud, or have knowledge of an economic crime, please contact the Edmonton Police Service at 780-423-4567 or #377 from a mobile phone. Anonymous information can be submitted to Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or online at www.tipsubmit.com/start.htm.