With 30 years of experience in motor vehicle theft, Kevin Gauthier, who is now a law enforcement liaison for LoJack, knows the ins and outs of the car theft underworld. He said there's an increasing popularity in this identity-theft technique. In the 1990s, around 10 percent of stolen vehicles were obtained by using fraudulent applications. By the 2000s, that percentage had ballooned to 70 to 75 percent.
It's shockingly easy to do. Personal information is more widely available online than ever before. If a thief is able to score a few bits of information from their victim, they can drive off in a car.
"Every time you use a credit card, there is the potential that someone can obtain your information and sell it," Gauthier says.
Car dealers are often duped on weekends, when the banks are closed and cannot verify a thief's fraudulent information. Since the dealers are motivated to hit sales goals, especially towards the end of the month when deadlines are looming, they'll often ink the deal without taking proper precautionary steps. Once this happens, the car is gone, and the poor soul who's information was used to trick the dealer has a long and exhausting road towards getting the situation with their credit sorted out.
These con artists can run their act on private sellers, as well. Earlier this month, a Los Gatos, Calif., resident advertised the sale of his Mercedes-Benz on Craigslist. Someone responded to the ad after a couple of weeks, then showed up with a fake ID and drove off with the car.
"The suspect possibly fraudulently used another person's form of identification to make the transaction and identify himself to the seller," said Los Gatos/Monte Sereno police Sgt. spokesman Clinton Tada, according to Los Gatos Patch.
Gauthier says thieves have been employing this trick for years, but it has recently evolved to include car rental companies, which are even easier to take advantage of. It just takes someone else's information, confidence and a less-than-vigilant car rental company employee.
"Rental car stores have online applications. All you have to do is fill one out with someone else's personal and payment information, go to the store and say 'I'm so-and-so here to pick up the car' and drive off with the vehicle," Gauthier explains.
Dealers and car rental companies have taken preventative measures against this kind of theft, such as pre-installing the LoJack vehicle recovery system in their cars, but it's still a very real threat.
Fortunately for you as the consumer, you generally won't be out any money if this happens to you, unless you're the private seller. However, the stress of dealing with getting your credit score ironed out should be enough to get you thinking about taking precautions.
To prevent becoming a victim of this type of car theft, Gauthier recommends using the same measures you would ordinarily use to keep identity thieves at bay. The Federal Trade Commission says you should protect yourself online by encrypting your data, keeping your passwords private and avoiding the urge to over-share on social media. For more tips on identity theft protection, head over the the FTC website.
If you're selling a car privately, Edmunds.com has some great tips on how to do it safely. The top four things you should do when showing your car to an interested party are: Vet the person thoroughly, don't go to the meeting alone, meet in a public place and trust your intuition if you're feeling uncomfortable.