A gang of professional car thieves trolls the parking lot of an upscale retail mall until they find what they want: a shiny new SUV. Within seconds they've disabled the alarm, hot-wired the engine, and driven away.
Voilà, a clone is born: two identical cars, one identification number.
Now, one final step—the thieves use a little forgery to get a real title or other ownership documents from the motor vehicle office in the neighboring state. Then, it's no problem to sell the vehicle to an unsuspecting victim for nearly full price. And since it's legally registered and not reported stolen, it's nearly untraceable.
"Right now, cloning is by far our biggest car theft challenge," says Supervisory Special Agent Ryan Toole, who leads our vehicle theft program at FBI Headquarters in Washington. "The good news is, it's preventable."
Here's how: by linking motor vehicle departments in every state. "If states could talk to one another electronically, you couldn't register a car in Maryland, for example, using a VIN from a car in Virginia," says Toole. "The system wouldn't allow it."
That's why we're on something of a crusade—working hand-in-hand with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators—to get all 50 states and the District to participate in the "National Motor Vehicle Title Information System" that would create such linkages. So far, only a handful of states are connected.
It's difficult to estimate how many cars are cloned, but we know it's a significant percentage of the 1.3 million cars stolen in the U.S. each year. Overall, the total price tag for auto theft is about $8 billion annually. One in three stolen cars never makes it back home.
In addition to tackling cloning, we continue to work with our local and state partners on auto-theft task forces that focus on dismantling larger rings, from the street level to the upper echelons of the criminal hierarchy.
"We're never going to stop the small-time thieves who just want a joyride," Toole says. "But we can make and are making a difference in taking down the big-time syndicates."
You can help…and help yourselves. Few cars are safe from a truly committed thief. But you can lower your risk by locking your car, parking in well-lit areas, and using alarms and other deterrents. If you're concerned about buying a cloned car, check the VIN with your state, do a title search, and trust your instincts on supposed "good deals."