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.
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.
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.