Rising trend in number plate thefts across the UK is being hailed as an indicator of the extent of car cloning – a multi-million pound business which is putting lives at risk.
by Paul Watson
Thousands of car number plates are being stolen each year by gangs of crooks intent on using other people’s identities to commit crimes.
Car crime experts have warned that a trend in car registration plate theft across the country may be more sinister than just mindless vandalism as both identity theft and car cloning have become multi-million pound underworld businesses.
In the last few months almost every police force across Britain has reported a rise in the number of reported thefts of number plates from vehicles compared to previous years.
”Car cloning is big business,” said Roger Powell, General Manager of MyCarCheck.com which specialises in helping detect car crime by providing checkable information to motorists worried about being sold a death trap or stolen vehicle with a false identity.
”Police forces across the country have reported a rise in the number of licence plates being pinched from cars and then used to disguise stolen or illegal vehicles which are then sold on to unsuspecting buyers.”
Criminals steal number plates to put on identical stolen vehicles which are then used in other crimes or sold as quickly as possible, often for a fraction of their true value, and the proceeds used to finance other illegal activities.
Often innocent drivers whose plates have been stolen don’t find out about the scam unless they are suddenly hit with fines for speeding and parking offences committed by drivers of the cloned cars.
From Somerset to Scotland drivers across the UK are increasingly finding that their plates have either been stolen or copied onto identical vehicles.
In East Sussex police have reported a steady rise in number plate thefts. With about a 25 per cent increase to 407 incidents in the last year.
In the first seven months of this year 312 number plates were reported stolen to Lothian and Borders Police compared to 406 for the whole of last year and just 256 for the whole of 2004.
In London the Metropolitan Police said 8,998 licence plate thefts took place in the period 2005/06, a rise of 32% on the previous year‘s figures.
The rise in licence-plate thefts has been attributed to the tightening of procedures which make it difficult for criminals to obtain duplicate plates legally.
“There is not a day goes by without innocent people calling MyCarCheck.Com and telling us about how they have become victims,” said Mr Powell.
“Often people pay thousands for a new car only to find it has been stolen or has previously been involved in an accident before being given a false identity and put back on the road.
“The only way to check is to make sure the registration plate matches the Vehicle identification Number (VIN) on the chassis and elsewhere.”
All UK chassis codes have 17 letters and numbers and at least the last four are unique to each vehicle.
“If there is less or more than 17 characters, or if there is any suggestion the numbers have been tampered with in any way, people should be immediately suspicious,” said Mr Powell, whose company uses data supplied by the DVLA, the police and the Association of British Insurers.
”A car may look alright but if it has been written-off or stolen then insurance companies may not pay out if it is ever involved in another claim,” said Mr Powell whose company found that almost three-quarters of second-hand car buyers who checked the history of their vehicles did so because they worried about being sold stolen or damaged goods.
Since 1996 insurance companies categorize vehicles that have been involved in claims as either A,B,C or D.
Category A means the car should be scrapped and crushed. Category B means the body should be destroyed, while C means the damage is extensive but repairable and D is reserved for vehicles with minor repairable damage or possibly stolen and recovered undamaged.
It is estimated that of the 35 million vehicles registered with the DVLA one in three have something to hide.
Each year an estimated 25,000 dangerous cars are put back on the road, many of them sold to unsuspecting motorists by organised gangs and confidence tricksters making an estimated £3 billion a year from the illegal trade.
”When you consider that one in seven cars on UK roads are regarded as total insurance write-offs, which equals about four million vehicles, it is easy to see how somebody can be caught out,” added Mr. Powell.
Over the next 12 months around five million British motorists will spend more than £28 billion on used cars – an average of about £5,100 each.
However Phil Swift of Claims Management & Adjusting Ltd, a company which investigates many cloned vehicle incidents, said that while the police were doing what they could the prospect of easy money was often too much of a temptation for many crooks.
”About five years ago around 500,000 cars a year were stolen,” he said.
”The police did a cracking job and we got about 70 per cent back which meant about 150,000 cars were never seen again.
“Now the figure of stolen vehicles is down to about 360,000 a year but the police are recovering less than 50 per cent of them. We are still losing about 180,000 a year which we never see again.
“Breaking for parts accounts for some and a few are possibly being exported so many are probably being cloned.”