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Shopping for cars should be easy, but the possibility of criminal activity can add layers of complexity. It can be easy to fall victim to car fraud because it is so prevalent, but the good news is there are ways to do your due diligence and protect yourself

VIN fraud can be devastating

Vehicles in a parking lot with VINs, which you can detect fraud using your VIN.
Vehicles on a lot | Getty Images

VIN fraud is just one form of car fraud. According to DMV, “VIN fraud is the act of replacing or altering a vehicle identification number (VIN) in order to mislead consumers or law enforcement. It occurs in conjunction with vehicle theft.” The two main types of VIN fraud are VIN cloning and VIN altering. 

VIN cloning takes the full VIN off a similar legally registered vehicle and places it on a damaged or stolen vehicle to hide its identity. This is done to sell a stolen car to an unsuspecting buyer and evade the police. It means there may be two cars on the road with the same VIN. The unsuspecting buyer of a cloned vehicle can face having their car impounded and dealing with that loss of property or having to prove to police non-involvement in the VIN cloning.

VIN altering can be defined in different ways. It can be removing the VIN, making the VIN unreadable, or changing one or more characters. Being a victim of a VIN altering probably means you now own a stolen car and will need to work with the police to clear your name. 

Check the VIN before buying a car 

Understanding the VIN can help you not be a victim of fraud and more. The first step is to get familiar with how the VIN is structured and where to find it. 

According to AutoZone, each character in a VIN has a specific meaning. Take the number “JN3MS37A9PW202929,” for example. The following would be the breakdown: 

  • World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI): The first three characters indicate the country of origin, the region where the vehicle was produced, manufacturer, and vehicle type. In the example above, it would be “JN3.” 
  • Vehicle Description Section (VDS): Characters four through eight indicate the vehicle’s model, body type, engine code, transmission type, and restraint system. The ninth character is called the check digit. The check digit is significant because it is used in detecting fraudulent VINs. In the example above, it would be “MS37A9.” 
  • Vehicle Identifier Section (VIS): The 10th character indicates the year the vehicle was manufactured, assuming it was built in or after 1981. The 11th character is for the manufacturing plant where the vehicle is assembled. Finally, the 12th through 17th characters are the unique vehicle’s production serial number. In the example above, it would be “PW202929.” 

According to DMV, you can look at several places on the car’s body to find the VIN. These places include the following: 

  • On the front of the engine block under the hood
  • The lower-left corner of the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel
  • Under the spare tire in the trunk 
  • Rear-wheel well above the back tire
  • Inside the driver’s door near the doorjamb
  • Front of car frame near the windshield fluid

There are easy to detect fraud using your VIN and protect yourself 

There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from fraud. Go with your gut when you see a car priced way below market price. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Request a copy of the car history report and look for indicators that the car could be stolen. If possible, have a trusted professional mechanic look over the vehicle before purchasing. 

Get a copy of the VIN before you see the vehicle so you can run the number and check for alerts. You can run the number through websites like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Ensure the VIN closely matches the numbers on the vehicle registration numbers. Carefully check the vehicle for any marks or etches on the VIN. Ask for any records of any work done on the car that could affect the VIN if you suspect tampering. Contact the police as soon as you suspect anything illegal. 

Be willing to walk away from a sale that doesn’t seem right.