Last week, Arizona Border Patrol agents seized a truck sporting perfect U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decals. Instead of the usual tools of the trade usually found in the bed, however, agents found $1.6 million worth of marijuana, according to KEYE TV.
The act of "cloning" vehicles -- almost perfectly altering a car so it looks as though it belongs to the government or a company -- has been on the rise over the past couple of years. Smugglers will "clone" almost anything and use it as a means to transport drugs or other illegal items. Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor of Victoria County in South Texas told KEYE TV he's seen everything from fake Haliburton tankers and DirecTV trucks to almost perfectly disguised police cars and even school busses complete with dummies.
Law enforcement officials don't know how many "cloned" vehicles are on the road, since, if they're properly done, they're basically impossible to nab. Hawk-eyed agents and officers have been able to stop a number of them, however, as minor flaws can give them away. One of the first encounters with a "cloned" vehicle happened back in 2006, according to Homeland Security Today. Agents only uncovered the true identity of a Border Patrol van when they noticed that there was "a tell-tale letter 'H,' instead of the letter 'P' that's in the displayed serial number used to differentiate Border Patrol vans from its Jeep Wranglers."
Criminals have been caught with cloned vehicles due to errors in spelling, too. A official-looking law enforcement truck was pulled over when agents saw it was labeled "Border Patron," according to KEYE TV.
Used car shoppers beware
Criminals are using similar cloning techniques to cover their tracks after they've stolen a car. The VIN of the stolen vehicle -- which is usually a luxury car or loaded SUV, according to the FBI -- is ripped off and replaced with a different VIN, usually belonging to a car of the same make and model, but from a different state. The car is then stuffed with additional phony ownership documents. After the transformation is complete, the car can easily be registered and sold in a new state.
It's important to be on the lookout for these cloned vehicles if you're shopping for a used car, as there are potentially huge ramifications if you find yourself in possession of one. For starters, if the cloned car is discovered for what it truly is, it will be confiscated and you'll be responsible for any outstanding loan payments you may have on it. You could also be accused of any lawbreaking for which owner of the original VIN is responsible, such as unpaid parking or speeding tickets. If this happens, you could spend a lot of time and money trying to prove that lawbreaking wasn't you.
The FBI has a few tips for staying clear of car cloning and the issues that come along with it:
- If you think your car was cloned (for instance, you receive notice of unpaid parking tickets that aren't yours), contact your local police.
- If you're car shopping, beware of a car being sold for substantially less than comparable makes and models.
- Get a copy of the car's vehicle history report.
- Check out the VIN plate on the dashboard for any evidence of tampering (scratches, etc.).
- Look for incorrect spellings on the car's paperwork.
- Trust your intuition. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.