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VIN Car Thieves

Claim:   Thieves can steal cars by using VINs to obtain duplicate keys through auto dealerships.

MIXTURE OF TRUE AND FALSE INFORMATION

TRUE:   Some thieves have stolen cars by using VINs to obtain duplicate keys through auto dealerships.
 
FALSE:   Obscuring you car's VIN is a good way to decrease the likelihood that your automobile will be stolen.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2003]

CAR THIEVES

Just heard this from a friend. Apparently car thieves have yet again found a way around the system and steal your car or truck without any effort at all.

The car thieves peer through the windshield of your car or truck, write down the VIN number from the label on the dash, go into the local dealership for that car brand and request a duplicate key for it from the VIN number.

Car dealerships make up a duplicate key from the VIN number, collect payment from the 'customer' who's really a would-be car thief for making up the duplicate key — the car thief goes back to your vehicle, inserts the key they've just gotten and off they drive with your car or truck.

They don't have to break in, don't have to damage the vehicle and draw no attention to themselves as all they have to do is to walk up to your car, insert the key and off they go to their chop shop with your vehicle!!!

Can you believe it?

To avoid this from happening to you, simply put opaque tape (like a strip of electrical tape, duct tape or medical tape) across the VIN label located on the dash board. You can't remove the VIN number legally under most state laws, so cover it so that it can't be viewed through the windshield by a car thief.

Anyway, feel free to forward this on before some other car thief steals another car or truck like this.
 

Origins:   Stealing cars by using Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) to obtain duplicate keys from auto dealerships certainly has worked for some car thieves. A July 2009 news item from Chicago reported that a ring of thieves using purloined VINs had stolen hundreds of cars over an 18-month period, and a December 2002 article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution described the break-up of a multi-state car theft ring which employed just such a scheme:
A man recently arrested by Lilburn police may be part of a car theft ring that operates in the Southeast and involves at least $580,000 worth of stolen cars, authorities said.

Kevin Lee Davis, 32, was arrested Dec. 4 by Lilburn police and charged with theft by receiving stolen property and illegally falsifying the vehicle identification number on a car, said Lilburn Police Chief Ron Houck.

Since the arrest, Davis has admitted to working with a group that has been stealing cars in at least four states, Houck said.

[Huntsville, Ala., police officer Jeffrey] Weaber said Davis had a few car-stealing schemes that he had never seen before.

"He has to be in the top five of the smartest criminals I've encountered," said Weaber. "I've never seen a scheme like that."

In one scheme, Davis was able to create authentic looking titles for cars he would steal, said Weaber.

According to police, Davis would go to used car lots and copy down the vehicle identification number of cars he wanted to steal. He would put the stolen VIN numbers on the titles he created and then take them to the dealership, Weaber said.

"He would go to the dealer and tell them that he lost the key to his car," said Weaber. "Because he had proof of ownership they would make the key for him and he would just drive the car off the lot."
While this article validates that the VIN scheme has been successfully used, it also demonstrates why the scheme doesn't necessarily pose a threat to the average car owner. Using VINs to steal cars isn't nearly as easy as the warning quoted above makes it sound: Keys the thieves have to case the cars they want to steal, record VINs, make trips to auto dealerships, present some form of registration or proof of title, wait for the dealers to contact the manufacturers and make up duplicate keys, then return to wherever they found the cars in the first place and use the duplicate keys to steal them. But this is antithetical to the way car thieves generally work — they're creatures of opportunity who steal cars as they find them, quickly and anonymously. They don't want to have to go around recording VINs, forging documents, calling attention to themselves and risking exposure by showing their faces at auto dealerships, waiting around for keys to be made, and hoping the cased cars are still where they found them when they finally return with their duplicate keys. Car thieves have plenty of other methods for stealing automobiles at their disposal, and most of them will gladly accept the slight damage those methods might cause to cars during the course of their thefts (especially if, as claimed above, the merchandise is destined for a "chop shop") than have to go through the delay and risks entailed by the rigmarole described above.

The auto theft ring described in the Journal and Constitution article quoted above was successful because not only were the thieves able "to create authentic looking titles for cars"; they were stealing automobiles from used car lots, not off the street or out of parking lots. They didn't just select some cars, then breeze into auto dealerships, walk out with keys in hand, and drive off in stolen cars a few minutes later: they had to take the time to generate forged certificates of title for the target cars first, and they were stealing cars from other dealerships, a method that guaranteed all the cars they had cased would still be in the same place once they returned with the duplicate keys. Crooks who stalk mall parking lots for their targets have no
such guarantees — once they've expended the time and effort required to obtain duplicate keys, they're more likely than not to find that the cars those keys fit have already been driven off by their owners.

All that said, the VIN scheme can be an effective method for the spot stealing of cars, particularly when the targets are expensive models (which the thieves intend to re-sell overseas and therefore need to acquire with as little damage as possible) and are habitually parked in the same places for long periods of time (outside the owner's home, for example, or in a parking lot at the owner's place of employment). Even though automobile dealerships are supposed to request some form of identification and proof of ownership (valid registration or certificate of title) before issuing duplicate keys, they don't always do so, as exemplified by the following account, written by a woman who obtained a set of duplicate keys (for her own car) with nothing more than a simple phone call:
I was in Arlington for a business meeting back in February and upon returning to my car, Lo and Behold, I realized that I locked my keys in the car. There they were staring back at me from the passengers seat. Then that sick empty feeling of stupidity set in - "what am I going to do now?" I looked for every possible way to get in the car but no luck. Maybe they should sell more of these cars in New York City — it would cut auto thefts in half! By this time it was 8PM and dark . . . My last option was to call a locksmith to get me inside and then pay who knows how much?! My friend suggested I call the Saturn dealership for a duplicate key. I never thought of that — OK, but then pay how much?! I looked in the phone book and your dealership was the closest one. When I called I was put through to a salesperson and explained my situation. The response was "No Problem". I gave him the last 6 digits of the vin # and I was in business. I got a ride over to the dealership and the key was waiting for me at the front desk. Unbelievable! I met the salesperson briefly — he was very pleasant and helpful and I was on my way. Now, the best part of all — there was no charge! I was floored. Now that is customer service!!!
Note, though, that for some models of automobiles thieves don't even need to bother with VINs and dealerships, because they can duplicate the necessary keys all by themselves. The following excerpt from an NYPD/FBI report describes how members of another auto theft ring stole cars by crafting their own keys on the spot:
Information obtained from sources within the car theft ring indicated that Nissan Pathfinders and Toyota Forerunners were the vehicles of choice among this particular group, simply because they were easy to steal. Thieves need only to pop a door lock to obtain the ignition key code number. With this number and a portable key maker, they make a duplicate key and drive away with the vehicle within a relatively short period of time, reportedly 7 minutes or less.
So, is the advice given in the message quoted above to obscure you car's VIN a good way of decreasing the likelihood that your automobile will be stolen? Not really, because:
  • As noted above, obtaining duplicate keys through automobile dealerships is too elaborate and risky a scheme for most car thieves, so this form of crime isn't very common.
  • Also as noted above, for at least some models of cars thieves can easily create their own duplicate keys.
  • The dashboard plate isn't necessarily the only place from which a car's VIN might be obtained. In nearly all recent models of cars, the VIN is encoded in multiple locations, such as a bar code found on the inside of the driver's door.
  • In some jurisdictions, it is against the law to obscure a car's VIN. New York City parking regulations, for example, specify that "No person shall stand or park a vehicle that has the vehicle identification number obscured in any manner."
In addition to all that, a research team at Johns Hopkins University recently announced that they had found a way to crack the code used in millions of car keys, a discovery that could potentially allow thieves to bypass the security systems on a variety of newer-model cars:
The research team at Johns Hopkins University said it discovered that the "immobilizer" security system developed by Texas Instruments could be cracked using a "relatively inexpensive electronic device" that acquired information hidden in the microchips that made the system work.

The radio-frequency security system being used in more than 150 million new Fords, Toyotas and Nissans involves a transponder chip embedded in the key and a reader inside the car. If the reader does not recognize the transponder, the car will not start, even if the key inserted in the ignition is the correct one.

Avi Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins who led the research team, said the code-breaking demonstrations illustrated that developers did not pay enough attention to security.

"I think the implications are that it sets us back about 10 years ago where we were with car security," Rubin said.
There's probably more truth to the theme of the Grand Jest Auto legend than we'd like to believe: if crooks really want to rob you, they'll find a way to do it no matter what security precautions you might take.

Although there's also some truth to the maxim that thieves will go after whatever's easiest to grab first, so even if you can't make your valuables absolutely impervious to theft you can at least maximize your chances that someone else will be the victim by making your valuables as difficult to steal as possible, obscuring your car's VIN isn't likely to significantly decrease the odds of theft.

Last updated:   21 July 2011

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Sources:

    Mungin, Lateef.   "Lilburn Arrest Tied to Auto Theft Ring."
    The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.   12 December 2002   (p. JJ1).

    Zekman, Pam.   "Thieves Target Commuter Lots In Elaborate Car Scam."
    29 July 2009.

    Associated Press.   "Security on Car Keys Can Be Unlocked, Team Says."
    Los Angeles Times.   30 January 2005.