Most people are aware that a Vehicle Identification Number or VIN is the best way to identify a specific vehicle. It’s the method that manufacturers and law enforcement uses first when trying to identify a specific car. Unfortunately, a new trend among car thieves is a trick called VIN switching which is exactly what the name sounds like, changing the VIN on a stolen vehicle.
Changing a VIN Number
A VIN number isn’t easy to change. The number is etched in metal on each car, so to remove it takes quite a bit of work. But apparently, some car thieves are willing to do that work to make it harder for innocent consumers to know they’ve bought a stolen car. Changing a VIN number is illegal. Not even vehicle experts who restore vintage cars are allowed to alter the VIN in any manner. This law applies to all motor vehicles on the road including motorcycles, trucks and cars.
There are several good tools for looking up the history of a vehicle using a VIN such as carVertical online. However, if the vehicle has a fraudulent VIN number, that history is bogus.
Reported Cases of VIN Switching
There have been several reported cases of this type of criminal activity in the news recently. One such case was reported by ABC 7 News regarding vehicles in Pittsburg, California. Rodrigo Lopez, the owner of a 2012 Tacoma was asked to bring it in to his local DMV. He had owned the truck for 18 months and had a pink slip. It turned out that the VIN on his truck matched the legitimate VIN on another vehicle. The vehicle had been purchased on Craigslist completely legally, yet it was found to be stolen. Another similar case was reported by WSMB in Nashville about a car purchased at auction. Neither the seller nor buyer knew it was stolen.
This crime is very sophisticated, and sometimes even car dealers are caught up in the scam. Vehicles with switched VINs are often sent over state lines to hide the theft more readily. When buying a used car, customers can double-check the VIN in a Department of Justice system called the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or NMVTIS. Only about 42 states in the U.S. require the VIN number checked on NMVTIS before any vehicle is sold. There is a small fee, but it would save the loss of a vehicle that is confiscated by the DMV like that of Mr. Lopez.
There are several ways that thieves switch VIN numbers. The most common is taking the VIN from a damaged or demolished car along with the title then switching it with one on a stolen car.