What is VIN Number Fraud & How you can prevent from becoming a victim?

Valerie Raskovic
Jul 09, 2024

In the modern time used car buyers can no longer rely solely on their instincts and basic automotive knowhow to find a good deal and trusting a car seller’s word has always been questionable. Many potential buyers who are just beginning their search for a used car are unaware of VIN-based fraud, such as VIN cloaking and title washing. These deceptive practices are used by criminals to misrepresent the car's true identity and condition.


As organized auto theft rings wreak havoc across the country, they employ a vast variety of complex auto theft and fraud related tactics across an extensive criminal network prominent in every US stateVIN cloning & Title Washing has become one of the most lucrative methods allowing these criminal enterprises to sell stolen vehicles to unassuming public.


After stealing the vehicle, the thieves head to a neighboring state and visit a familiar new car dealership. They look for the exact year, make, model, trim level and even the same color as the stolen car. Posing as shoppers, the car thieves write down the 17-digit VIN code and other pertinent information on the vehicle. The theft ring then creates exact copies of the VIN plates, which are attached to the dashboard and driver's side door jamb. The thieves carefully pry off the original vehicle ID plates and replace them with the cloned ones. In vehicles where the VIN number is stamped into the body the thieves use clever techniques to alter the stamping. These criminals may also alter or forge the title to reflect the updated VIN number, making the stolen vehicle appear legitimate on paper.


VIN cloaking is an especially insidious practice that, in many cases, may go undetected by buyers without additional research into the vehicle history. This vehicle fraud is perpetrated to trick the buyer by replacing or disguising the VIN of a stolen or badly damaged car disguise its true identity. This practice involves taking the VIN from a legally owned vehicle and placing it on the stolen or damaged car, making it appear legitimate. As a result, the vehicle's history report may not reflect its true past, hiding issues such as theft, severe damage or other negative information. VIN cloaking has a high risk of putting the potential buyer at risk of purchasing a car with hidden problems and legal complications. In many unfortunate cases, the purchase may not be considered lawful and once the VIN switching is discovered and the stolen vehicle identified, the car may need to be returned to the rightful owner or the insurance company. It’s important to remember no two cars can ever share the same VIN number so, once the duplicate entry is discovered most commonly when the owner goes to register the vehicle and submits the vehicles faulty title and documents with the duplicate VIN number the DMV will flag the vehicle that will prompt law enforcement to conduct an investigation. This could result in the buyer losing the vehicles along with the vehicles purchase price.


Here are a few ways you can protect yourself from this type of fraud:


  1. Familiarize yourself with the year, make and model of the vehicle you are intending to purchase. Make note of all of the vehicles different VIN number locations. Most vehicle VIN’s are displayed on the following locations:
  • Dashboard: On the driver's side, where the dashboard meets the windshield. It is typically visible through the windshield from outside the car.
  • Driver's Side Door Jamb: On a sticker or metal plate on the inside edge of the driver's side door or on the door frame itself.
  • Engine Block: Stamped on the engine block.
  • Firewall: Stamped on the firewall in the engine compartment.
  • Underneath the Spare Tire: In the trunk or cargo area.
  • Driver's Side Front Wheel Well: Directly above the tire or directly on the shock tower potion of the cars body.

Look for any signs of VIN tampering, make note of the proper font and placement of the vehicle plates and information.

  1. Have the vehicle professionally inspected by a certified technician or auto body expert.
  2. Even though in most cases a Vehicle History Report may not directly identify cars with forged paperwork and switched VIN numbers it can show gaps in registration or ownership that can be a small indicator prompting further investigation.
  3. Contact your local Highway Patrol department prior to making the purchase. Some states like California offer theft inspection services, in cases with out of state vehicle registration a CHP inspection is mandated prior to vehicle registration.
  4. Prepare a list of questions to ask. Pay close attention to how the seller describes the vehicle and if the seller is evasive at any point, move on to another car.
  5. Check the paperwork. Ask the seller to show you the actual title as well as any registration documents before finalizing the sale. Make sure the information listed on the registration documents match to the information listed on the title. Look for any vital mistakes, errors or misspellings related to the vehicle’s VIN, year, make and model on the actual title.
  6. Research the online seller. When purchasing a car through Facebook Marketplace or other online platforms take the time to look up the seller’s profile. Look for any red flags, such as inconsistencies between the seller's name and the paperwork, an account with no transaction history or a negative online reputation. This information can assist you in making an informed decision.
  7. Beware of deals that are too good to be true. To ensure fast and easy transactions, car thieves and criminals list these vehicles at incredibly low prices, enticing budget-minded consumers to make hasty decisions so as not to miss out on the deal.


When purchasing a pre-owned vehicle take every precaution and trust your instincts. If anything seems suspicious from initial communication it's best to walk away and seek another vehicle.

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