Police in St. Louis say they're seeing more incidents of "car cloning" – a process where thieves copy VIN numbers off cars in parking lots, and then use those numbers to register stolen vehicles.
Car cloning causes big problems for innocent car owners whose VIN numbers were copied – you could be on the hook for any parking tickets the cloned car gets, be accused of causing an accident, or even find yourself accused of being involved in organized crime, the FBI warns.
It happens all over the country. In 2009, the FBI broke up a crime ring that was cloning cars. They'd processed 1,000 stolen cars worth about $25 million. and given them new, "clean" VIN numbers.
The crime can also hurt used car buyers, unaware that the car they've purchased was stolen. That happened to Guiseppe "Joe" Pirrone, a Florida resident who told CNN his car was taken by sheriffs who'd discovered it was stolen.
But Pirrone was still on the hook for the $27,000 loan he'd taken out to buy the used F350 Super Duty truck. He continued paying his $536 a month payments long after the car was gone, CNN said.
The FBI has tips on how to detect if your car's VIN has been copied, or if you're about to purchase a stolen car:
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 vehicle's history report.
Check out the VIN plate on the dashboard for any evidence of tampering (scratches, etc.)
Look for incorrect spelling on papework like vehicle titles.
Trust your intuition – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.