Each vehicle has a unique "Vehicle Identification Number"
(VIN), similar to a Social Security Number, which is assigned at the factory.
VIN Switching is the unlawful technique suspects use
to disguise a vehicle's true identity by changing its VIN. VIN Switching
is most often used to disguise a stolen vehicle, by changing its VIN to
one which is not stolen. Specifically, the suspect replaces the public
VIN plate on the dash board, and the federal certification label at the
driver's door. The vehicle is then sold to unsuspecting buyer, exported,
or the suspect may keep it for himself or his associates.
Sloppy work sometimes makes a VIN switched vehicle
easy to detect. Unfortuantely, most VIN switches are perpetrated by experienced,
professional auto thieves, and the quality of their work easily fools citizens
and patrol officers alike. These vehicles are often only detected by experienced
auto theft investigators.
There are several ways a suspect may obtain a "replacement"
A salvaged or junked vehicle is low valued because
it may have been heavily damaged, burned, stripped, abandoned, or even
previously stolen and recovered. A suspect will buy a salvaged or junked
vehicle solely for the title and VIN information. He will then steal an
identical vehicle, and changed the VIN of the stolen vehicle to match the
VIN of the salvaged vehicle. The disguised stolen vehicle is then sold
to an unsuspecting buyer. Leagally, the buyer only owns the title to the
salvaged vehicle, which may still be sitting at a junk yard or may have
been chopped to pieces by the suspect to avoid its discovery and examination
Suspects may also get VIN information from vehicles
they already own. A suspect may have crashed his vehicle, but rather than
repair his vehicle, he might steal an identical vehicle, and replace the
stolen vehicle's VIN with his own.
Suspects may also make up their own VINs by either
making up an entirely new number, or by simply changing one or two digits
of the stolen vehicle's VIN. Title documents are either altered or counterfeited
to match the new VIN. In these cases, the unsuspecting buyers have only
purchased a worthless title to a nonexistant vehicle.
Rather than make up a VIN number, suspects often copy
the VIN from a similar vehicle they happened to have come across in a parking
lot. The suspect then goes to DMV and falsely represents himself as that
vehicle's owner. He will claim to have lost a license plate, and order
a new set of plates, a current registration, and a replacement title. After
a stolen vehicle's VIN has been changed to match the replacement VIN, the
title and license plates are then used to sell the stolen vehicle to an
unsuspecting buyer. O.C.A.T.T. investigated a case where one vehicle had
been cloned 13 times!