Car thieves clone VINs, fool drivers into buying stolen vehicles

PITTSBURG, Calif. (KGO) -- It's a nightmarish scenario being faced by an untold number of car buyers across the country. Authorities are confiscating the cars of honest, law-abiding consumers.

Rodrigo Lopez must have felt like he had been hit by a Mack Truck.

The DMV ordered him in June to bring his 2012 Toyota Tacoma in for inspection. He's had it for 18 months and even had the pink slip.

"I thought I owned the truck. I had the pink slip under my name. Everything was good," said Rodrigo Lopez of Pittsburg.

The Highway Patrol told him this was not his. He was an apparent victim of VIN switching.

VIN stands for Vehicle Identification number-- that's the number on the dashboard and inside the door.

Officers confiscated the truck from him.

"They said there were two people registered with the same truck," he said.

Both Rodrigo and another person had registered different vehicles under the same VIN.

"Let's pretend I'm a car thief and I steal this car," said Michael Finney. "Then I go looking for a similar car-this one. I clone the VIN from this one and move it back to this one."

"I finally got the money to be able to afford a truck. I went and bought it and now, it's all gone," lamented Rodrigo.

In this case, Rodrigo says he unknowingly bought a stolen vehicle. He paid $18,000 for the car to a seller on Craigslist -money that he hasn't been able to recover. His insurance company denied his claim.

Roger Morris is with the non-profit insurance trade group, National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"That's not something that's going to be covered," he said.

"If you lose the vehicle because you have purchased the phony vehicle, that's, unfortunately, the consumer's problem, said Morris.

He says an insurance company likely has already paid a claim to the original owner. It's not going to pay a claim twice.

But Emily Rusch of the California Public Interest Research Group questions that, saying victims who did due diligence are still getting duped.

"So isn't that similar to somebody whose car was actually stolen from them? Should the insurance companies pay out the victim? I think it's a good question that they should consider," she said.

Rusch is calling on State attorneys general to conduct a multi-state investigation to see how widespread the problem really is.

Morris says it's a big problem.

"We see a lot of it. There's no numbers on it. There's no data that's kept on this."

He said the crime is so sophisticated even car dealers are getting fooled. Thieves who clone VINS usually send those vehicles out of state-making this a multi-state issue.

That why he urges car buyers to use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or NMVTIS.

That's a U.S. Department of Justice program that enables car buyers to confirm a vehicle's VIN and car history before making a purchase.

There are 42 states that use NMVTIS before registering a vehicle to confirm there are no duplicate VINs. But the Department of Justice says California is not currently among those states.

Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California urges the DMV to change that

"For a very low price, you can at least be assured when you're buying a car that you are not buying a stolen car with a cloned identification number."

We contacted the DMV and it agrees. It told 7 On Your Side it is working with the Department of Justice to fully implement NMVTIS in California by next month- 27 years after Congress approved the system in 1992. It comes too late for people like Rodrigo.

"I was really in shock and now they just took my truck," he said.

The state currently has a compensation fund for consumers negatively impacted by the closure of a car dealer. That fund does not compensate anyone victimized by VIN cloning.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
Copyright © 2019 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.