BBB Advises Used Car Shoppers: Do Your Research or You Could Be Buying a Stolen car

July 02, 2009

As more families look to stretch their dollar, buying a used car, instead of new, is increasingly popular. Unfortunately, some law enforcement are reporting that VIN cloning—which targets used car buyers—is on the rise and Better Business Bureau advises car buyers to do their research or they could unknowingly purchase a stolen car.

Nearly 4 million used cars were purchased in May, up 23 percent over April, according to CNW research. As a reflection of our current economy, at the same time, new car sales are down 34 percent.  One scam that specifically plagues used car buyers is VIN cloning, which is essentially auto identity theft used by car thieves to unload stolen cars. According to the most recent numbers from CARFAX, as many as 225,000 of the 1.5 million cars stolen every year have been subjected to VIN cloning.

“VIN cloning affects both the victim who had their car stolen and the unsuspecting buyer,” said Karen Nalven, BBB President. "When the police track down the stolen car, they are going to give it back to the rightful owner and the new owner will suddenly have no car or a way to retrieve his or her money back.”

A car’s vehicle identification number, or VIN number, is a unique number that serves as a way to recognize a specific car. The number is also used by law enforcement to track down and flag stolen cars. For this reason, car thieves will “clone” a stolen car’s VIN number to match that of a car that isn’t stolen.

Sometimes the thieves will 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, sold through classifieds or on unsuspecting used car lots.

When police are able to track down stolen cars they will seize the car from the buyer and there is usually little recourse for the unsuspecting buyer to get his or her money back.

BBB recommends taking the following steps to avoid becoming a victim of VIN cloning:

• Be extremely cautious if you see a late model luxury car or SUV selling significantly under normal market price.
• Do not fall for the “we need cash quickly” excuse; exercise due diligence.
• Check the VIN number on the dashboard, inside the door jamb and under the hood against the car’s title documents for discrepancies.
• Closely examine the car’s title, registration and other documents. Fake documents sometimes contain misspelled words.
• If you still have questions about the validity of the vehicle’s VIN, obtain a comprehensive vehicle history report.
• If you believe your car has been cloned—one giveaway according to the FBI is if you receive a notice for unpaid parking tickets—contact your local law enforcement.

For more advice on shopping for a new or used car, visit