Auto identity theft growing, Fla. officals say

By Diane C. Lade
The South Florida Sun-sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Four years after she bought the sporty gray Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toni McKnight discovered its secret: Her car was a clone.

It had been reported stolen a few weeks before she bought it used from a large South Florida dealership. But McKnight was unaware of that fact because the stolen Eclipse had been refitted with a vehicle identification number, or VIN, taken from another car.

She discovered the fraud when police, acting on a tip, came to her Miramar home and took the vehicle. She never saw the car again. Seven years later and after filing a lawsuit, she still is trying to get her money back from the dealer.

Law enforcement officials say such "cloning" is increasingly common and sophisticated, with advanced technology making it easier to steal a car's identity and create realistic phony VIN plates and car titles. But because most state vehicle history systems aren't linked to a constantly updated national network, and title laws aren't uniform, it can be difficult to detect whether the same identification number has been cloned onto multiple vehicles registered in different states.

Cloning operations often target high-end models that will bring a good price and their business is booming, said Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization funded by the insurance industry that works to prevent auto fraud and theft.

The bureau logged four recoveries of cloned cars in 2001, the first year it began tracking the crime. Last year, there were 384 nationwide. Many more cloned cars are thought to go undiscovered or the cases are classified as thefts.

Florida ranks third nationally in auto thefts, according to bureau statistics, with 76,437 cases last year.

Thieves sometimes lift a vehicle identification number from one car and then steal a similar model. The stolen car, retitled in another state, becomes the clone.

Most often, buyers have no idea they have purchased a clone until police inform them.

Consumers often lose their cars when such fraud is found because the vehicles are considered stolen property.

Any warranties are void.

It's almost impossible for consumers to detect clones because they have what appear to be clean titles. Thieves forge, duplicate or alter titles so the vehicle identification number placed on the clone matches the documents.

Police must find the VINs that manufacturers stamp onto a car's parts and frame to determine whether the cloned number on the easily visible dash and door plates is from another vehicle.

Miami-Dade police Maj. Greg Terp, who for 11 years led an auto theft task force, remembers one case in which seven cars with the same VIN were found in five states and two Canadian provinces.

Florida is a hot spot for clones, Terp said, because of its ports and access to foreign markets, where thieves can ferry stolen cars for VIN switching and retitling. Two years ago, the task force cracked a ring responsible for cloning 250 cars.

Copyright 2007 South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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