Julie Bentham thought she had spotted a real bargain. There, in the pages of a motoring magazine, was a shiny, metallic-grey Audi A3 on sale for £9,100. The car's book price was more than double that, and Bentham thought nothing of driving the 85 miles to Stockport, Greater Manchester, from her home in Kendal, Cumbria, to take a closer look.
Cautious, given the huge discount, she insisted on seeing the car's paperwork. The seller produced a Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) logbook with the official watermark and an HPI background check on the vehicle, proving it had not been reported stolen or damaged. Reassured, Bentham paid the man in cash and drove away.
A few days later she tried to renew the tax disc at her post office. She produced the logbook also known as the V5 form; in effect the car's passport but although everything seemed in order, the barcode wouldn't register. She contacted the police, who ran more thorough checks on the car and discovered it was stolen. It was then reclaimed by its original owner, so Bentham lost both the car and the cash.
A married mother, Bentham gave evidence in the trial of one of Britain's biggest car-cloning gangs, which began last week in Manchester. An eight-strong ring is accused of stealing 76 vehicles, including types of Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Mini, and selling them on to hapless buyers.
The case has highlighted a worrying trend among car thieves, who are using the very system set up to protect buyers from fraud to forge registration documents. These papers are often made from genuine DVLA blanks, illegally obtained and ready to be filled in with the registration details of a stolen car.
It's a simple scam. A gang will steal a car usually by taking the keys during a burglary but in order to sell it on without arousing suspicion, they will steal the identity of a legitimate car to cloak the stolen vehicle.
This is done by noting down the numberplate of any car that matches the one stolen, same make, model, engine size and colour. The gang then logs onto the website of one of the many companies that perform vehicle background checks such as HPI; enters the registration number and, posing as a buyer wanting to check the car's history, requests additional information. For a fee of £20 per car (or three cars for £29.97) the background check will yield details of the car to which the registration plate belongs, including the VIN (a long, unique number on a metal plate attached to each car's chassis) and the engine number.
This information is supposed to be used by a buyer to check the authenticity of documents provided with a car for sale, but the thief uses it for fraud. He copies the newly obtained VIN number onto stolen or faked registration documents and replaces the stolen car's number plate. The unsuspecting buyer is then presented with a registration document that matches the stolen car.
Because the information is taken from security databases, the stolen car shows up as genuine. Even if the buyer runs an HPI check for himself, the details fed back are those of the cloned, legitimate car, so it gets a clean bill of health. A discrepancy will show up only if the prospective buyer questions the HPI database about the serial number of the V5 document.
The scam relies in large part on thieves being able to get their hands on genuine-looking registration logbooks, and a flood of stolen V5s has hit the market in recent months, prompting the police to issue a warning to all car buyers to be extra-vigilant. They estimate that forces uncovered up to 10 fake logbooks a day last month, and have predicted a plague of clone cars with unwitting drivers.
It is a huge problem, says Detective Sergeant Mark Tidy of the Association of Chief Police Officers vehicle crime intelligence service. Every year 150,000 vehicles are stolen and half are never recovered. Criminals can export the cars or sell them for scrap but the best way of getting money, and getting it quickly, is to clone a car. The numbers are frightening.
Cloning is nothing new, of course. In its most basic form, crooks steal a car, find an identical model and steal its plates or have replicas made in a backstreet workshop then fit them to the stolen vehicle. It's in effect a form of identity theft, and the car then passes cursory checks that match a plate to the make, model and colour of a car.
Until four years ago, the police thought they had made a breakthrough in the second-hand car market by convincing consumers not to buy a car without carrying out a background check provided by a firm such as HPI or Experian. Such checks give the VIN, the engine number and the make and model of car, all of which information is replicated in the watermarked DVLA V5 logbook.
But in 2006 a job lot of 130,000 blank V5 forms was stolen, leading to the surge in the more sophisticated form of cloning. At least 1,238 vehicles have been sold to unsuspecting buyers around Britain for a total of more than £14m.
The stolen V5s have allowed criminals to legitimise vehicles. The only way we can stop it is by seizing all the documents but there are thousands out there, says Tidy. People hold these up and see that there is a watermark. They are real documents so buyers feel reassured.
Several cases involving the blank V5s are working their way through the courts. In Manchester Michael ODonnell, 28, Aqeel Ashraf, 19, and Mark Revill, 43, stand accused of being part of a car-ringing gang that used the documents. Over the course of two years, until July last year, the gang is said to have made more than £1m by selling clone cars to victims such as Bentham. They deny the charges.
The case against them continues, and so will the problem of car cloning until the security breach is plugged. The DVLA and police are said to be so worried about fake registration documents that they are considering redesigning the logbook to render the stolen examples useless.
Until then, the DVLA stresses buyers should beware: DVLA continue to do everything we can to alert the public to the risk posed by the theft of these blank certificates, it says. A registration document is one piece of a complicated jigsaw when buying a second-hand vehicle and does not prove who owns it.
HPI says that some information about a car can be accessed by only those with trade accounts. We are very careful to make sure that only genuine dealers have access to the more sensitive information and we take account abuses very seriously, the company said last week. However, we are finding that the number of cloned vehicles we are identifying is increasing every year.
HOW TO AVOID BEING HIT BY RINGERS
Car cloning has two victims: the owner of the car whose identity is stolen, and the buyer of the clone vehicle. There's little you can do to prevent your car from being cloned, and the first you may know of it is when you receive parking fines or speeding tickets for which you are not responsible. If this happens, return them to the issuing authority, together with any documentary evidence that supports your case. Alert both the DVLA and the police.
Buyers can reduce the risk of buying a clone car by taking the following precautions:
- Check all the paperwork: the clone car will usually have no service history, as this would reveal its true identity, on a fairly new car this can be a giveaway. Look for signs of service-book tampering, such as missing pages or details that have been erased.
- Check the V5 registration document (the logbook). Although the stolen documents in circulation are blank (allowing the cloner to enter any information he wants) they all have a serial number. Look out for documents with numbers ranging from BG8229501 to BG9999030 and BI2305501 to BI2800000, and call the police if any are found.
- Take note of the logbook's serial number and call the DVLA vehicle-checking service on 0300 790 6104 when you are away from the seller. It will tell you if the registration document is one that has been stolen.
- A vehicle provenance check, from HPI, for example, could be a waste of time, unless you quote the serial number of the logbook, as you might simply be checking the details of a genuine car and not the one in front of you. However, we still recommend that you check the details on the V5 against the car, including the chassis number, or VIN. Also check the seller's name and address.
- Look closely at the tax disc as it will be either forged or altered to match the car's number plate.
- Most clones will be sold privately and sellers will want to hide their identity, so be wary of those who give only a mobile phone number, and those who insist on bringing the car to you or are reluctant to invite you into their home, they may be using someone elses driveway to conduct the sale.
- Above all, remember that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
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