Modern Car Thieves Outsmart The Law By Cloning



Car thieves are adopting depressingly creative ways to clone cars.
When it comes to car theft, the good news is that law enforcement has become so good that theft rates have dropped for a decade. The bad news is that this is forcing car thieves to become far more clever and daring than they ever were in the past.

Not long ago, chop shops were the favorite fence for car thieves. They'd drop off a stolen vehicle where it would get "chopped" into its most lucrative parts and sold off for big profits. But today, chop shops are practically passé. Now car thieves find it faster, safer and more profitable to "clone" a car.

Cloning is not a new practice, but it's becoming more and more popular. It involves stealing a car, then creating a new title and VIN for it, but doing it in a way that makes it very difficult for law enforcement to track. And car thieves are adopting depressingly creative ways to clone cars.


John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.



Law enforcement found six stolen cars that were exported using the same VIN.
The simplest form of cloning involves writing down a Vehicle Identification Number from one car, then going out and stealing the same make and model somewhere else. Thieves who are after a specific type of car, say a BMW 7 Series, will go to a BMW dealership, walk the lot, write down the VIN from one of the 7-series that is parked there, then go steal a different 7 Series elsewhere. They'll install the legitimate VIN onto the stolen car, put on new plates, create a new title in Photoshop and voila, even if the stolen car is ever stopped by the police, a VIN check will come back saying the car was never stolen.

Dealership lots are just one source of VINs for car thieves. If they're after older models, they may go to the nearest mall and look for the proper model in the parking lot, then copy the VIN. Or they may simply go to a junk yard.

Some thieves have found it safer to go to a salvage auction and buy a wrecked car. Not only does this give them the VIN, it also gets them the legal paperwork for the title. Just to give you an idea of how lucrative cloning can be, one car that was burned to the ground and was worth maybe $500 in scrap recently sold at a salvage auction for $8,000 because thieves wanted the paperwork for cloning. Recycling yards complain that thieves are driving up their costs because they can't possibly justify paying that kind of money for scrapped cars.

Someone who knows what to look for can usually sniff out a cloned car.
Thieves have also found that they can use the same VIN on several stolen cars. In one example, law enforcement found six stolen cars that were exported using the same VIN. And that brings us to another element in this story: how many stolen cars are being exported these days, mainly to North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Auction houses in the U.S. are now packed with foreigners who are there to buy cars that will get shipped out of the country. Most of these people are legitimate, but they're reducing the pool of used cars in the U.S. at the same time they're driving up prices. We'll save the details of that story for another article.

Law enforcement is keenly aware of car cloning and has a few tricks up its sleeve to attack the problem. For one thing, most people are unaware that there are actually 20 VINs on every car, and some of them are in hard-to-get-to places. Most thieves will merely replace the VIN on the dashboard, figuring that few people will check to see if it matches the other VINs on a car. But someone who knows what to look for can usually sniff out a cloned car.

Better still, law enforcement now has access to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. It's a nationwide database that tracks all the VINs on all vehicles, including vehicles that have been scrapped, totaled or exported. It took 17 years for the system to become available nationwide (though Illinois is not yet onboard) and soon it's going to be available in all squad cars. That will help police quickly determine if a VIN is legitimate or not.

But car thieves are a canny lot. They've proven to be very adaptable. And the fast-buck profits in stealing cars will likely prove too tempting to make them stop.


John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.



I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 32 Comments
      Dwight Bynum Jr.
      • 3 Years Ago
      That photo = hairiest car thief... ever.
      canuckcharlie
      • 3 Years Ago
      identity theft goes one step further
      breakfastburrito
      • 3 Years Ago
      Thanks autoblog! Now i know how to feed my kids, if my job gets outsourced! Food on the table!
      jonwil2002
      • 3 Years Ago
      One answer is to require that all new cars sold in the US must contain a standardized method (OBD2 or something similar) to read the VIN from the ECU and must store it in the ECU in a way that it cant be erased or replaced or tampered with (one way would be efuses similar to what Microsoft use in the XBOX 360 to prevent firmware downgrading). Car dealers, cops, customs guys, DMV inspection guys etc would be given a simple machine to read the ECU and verify that the VIN in the ECU isn't on the national database of stolen cars and that it matches the VIN plate. Effectively makes it very hard to re-use the ECU (or all the parts that tie off it) as any attempt to register a car with a stolen ECU can be picked up easily. Stock radios, infotainment systems, nav systems and other in-car electronics could be locked to the specific ECU via some sort of authentication to make those useless to steal also.
        Carbon Fibre
        • 3 Years Ago
        @jonwil2002
        ...and now create an exorbitant amount of hassle to change, modify anything under my needs because of these id'ed hassles, but nonetheless nice insight.
      Blackstar
      • 3 Years Ago
      Or one could just buy a car in a color no one would possibly want to steal. There are complied lists of the most popular stolen makes, models and colors. Just grab one from the other end of the spectrum to massively decrease your chances of it getting nicked. ;)
      TangoR34
      • 3 Years Ago
      This type of crime also popularised way before hand in the UK. Thieves make their fast buck through private sale nationally as well. They steal a car after acquiring the key in a house burglary (also known as "2 in 1" burglary) find the model and color that's driving round, copy their number plate and clone it on the stolen one along with a VIN. There are thousands of people became victim of this crime. I even read an article about it where the police keep all the cloned cars in a 7-storey parking lot for forensics. There are even Ferrari's. The country's recent advice is to actually observe the seller's "living environment", see if they knew where the teabags were or where the toilet was (because they will likely to use fake address in case they were back traced). If they ask for meeting somewhere deserted, INSIST to meet them in their house where that car was "registered".
      DanDaMan
      • 3 Years Ago
      Believe it or not, cops have very little to do with the decreasing rate of car theft. Bottom line, unless the car is equipped with LoJack and the theft is immediately reported, it will be in a shipping container or a local chop shop within 1 hour. The #1 reason car theft is decreasing is because most new cars are now equipped with immobilizer systems making them nearly impossible to start without a valid (transponder) key. The only way to steal them is to tow them away. Unless you're going to chop the car up for parts, there's no point in stealing a car you can't start.
        ckm
        • 3 Years Ago
        @DanDaMan
        Although it's probably not available to most of the opportunists that steal cars, there are tools for electronically bypassing the factory immobilizers. That's why they're worth stealing to put in containers and sell overseas - someone will hack the immobilizer.
        sirjaysmith
        • 3 Years Ago
        @DanDaMan
        This is why I love my Mopar EVTS system I had installed into my Jeep. Even if the bastards tow my Jeep away, the lojack trips once the Jeep reaches 1 mile of distance traveled without my key in the ignition, and automaticly alerts the tracking company and the police as well as myself.
      Johnny Trailerpark
      • 3 Years Ago
      If you own a GM or Ford truck, or a Honda you're screwed.
        stickshiftn6901
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Johnny Trailerpark
        what the hell are you talking about ? GM were the ones who were smart enough to start putting transponder chip keys like 10 years ago... then everyone else followed... just like onstar
          reattadudes
          • 3 Years Ago
          @stickshiftn6901
          GM started using VATS (Vehicle Anti Theft System) keys with the embedded chips in 1986 on the Corvette, and highline GM cars followed in 1990.
          nvedamuthu
          • 3 Years Ago
          @stickshiftn6901
          I think he's talking about the Escalade and F-150's "most wanted" status on a car thief's list. Th wheels on the Escalade are a fortune, so are the seats, navigation, havac, wood paneling, dash, and trunk.
      LifeLongCarGuy
      • 3 Years Ago
      The funny thing about this is that years ago you would get an auto insurance discount for having VIN Etch, because it made your vehicle more recoverable. Psst. Now no cars come equipped with VIN Etched glass. I wonder why? :) Cover your VIN # to prevent being hassled by the cops if you get pulled over because someone stole your VIN and it shows as a duplicate in their system.
      ShutoSteve
      • 3 Years Ago
      So why hasn't someone cloned me a decent example of an Acura NSX yet?! J.K.! It's appalling to think that in this day and age, it's becoming harder and harder NOT to be swindled. Very rarely does society go uphill as a whole, and unfortunately, as I view the 21st century currently, it's a downhill struggle to make it to the top.
        creamwobbly
        • 3 Years Ago
        @ShutoSteve
        No, society generally aspires to betterment. Or do you think we were better off when nobody except the clergy could read & write, and commoners held no property of their own because they *were* property, and you had to work 16 hours every day with 5 hours sleep just to make a living?
          ShutoSteve
          • 3 Years Ago
          @creamwobbly
          Do I think what? You don't know me or my opinions. I'm a doctor, not a hypocrite. I simply made a joke, and stated a fact that is well displaced and conveyed in general literature. As for working 16 hours a day, sometimes I do just that, so your statement is of little relevance to me.
          Brad
          • 3 Years Ago
          @creamwobbly
          Critique much?
      • 3 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      Agilis
      • 3 Years Ago
      Car thieves in general will always try to circumvent the latest in security but we are in fact reaching a point where car thieves cannot compete with the latest counter measures being introduced by vehicle manufacturers. What ever method car thieves use, in this case cloning the VIN of a vehicle, the more educated law enforcement is, the better. In the event a car is suspected of being cloned, I would hope that law enforcement would know how to read the VIN in the ECU for comparison. For instance, my Audi's infotainment system will display the vehicle's VIN when I click on 'VIN' under the 'Car' menu. Thieves cannot alter the VIN programmed into the ECU because changing that value is next to impossible.
        belcan11
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Agilis
        That's what you think. Get a Vag-Tacho and you can change pretty much anything.
        Carbon Fibre
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Agilis
        The ridiculous number of VIN's inside a car is pretty much impossible to change, but anything software coded is not impossible to change.
    • Load More Comments