Buying a used car? How to check if it’s stolen

ORLANDO, Fla. — Imagine buying a used car and later finding out the previous owner actually stole it or covered up damage.


Criminals think they can get away with it by copying the VIN of a legally registered vehicle.

Channel 9′s Alexa Lorenzo shows you the cloned cars spotted on Central Florida roads and explains how you can still be on the hook if you unknowingly buy a clone.

Along Interstate 75, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled over the driver of a Cadillac.

“Do you have a reason for traveling 86?” the trooper said.

Read: Catalytic converter thefts continue to surge across Florida

The driver was initially stopped for speeding, but when a trooper approached the vehicle, he noticed that the Vehicle Identification Number on the windshield had been tampered with.

The SUV’s VIN matched a 2020 Cadillac registered in Florida.

One problem: The vehicle was a 2018 Cadillac stolen from Pennsylvania.

The driver, who owned a dealership, was arrested.

Read: Troopers search for hit-and-run driver in stolen car who crashed into other vehicles

In January, troopers pulled over another cloned car in Kissimmee. They said it has been stolen from someone in Lee County, and they discovered inside of it a gun and 15,000 fentanyl pills.

Troopers said the VIN on the door and the window had been cloned.

“They go through several steps to make this look real,” said Joe Lopez, a retired FHP trooper who spent 32 years working for the agency. “It’s a business -- organized crime.”

Lopez said criminals can obtain a VIN from a legally registered, similar-looking vehicle to hide the identity of a stolen vehicle.

Read: Warning: Vehicles being stolen from valet services, Orange County deputies say

“Look at it as identity theft, but you’re stealing the identity of another vehicle,” he said.

The number of cloned VINs have more than doubled in Florida from 30 in 2019 to 75 in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

“Somebody will complain -- somebody will come to us -- and it’s usually too late,” Lopez said.

But it is not just stolen cars; criminals can also post cloned vehicles online, hiding the identity of a damaged car set to be resold.

“There have been times where they forget to change the one on the door. And that’s a sure tell (sign) and (you) check the paperwork,” Lopez said.

Investigators have begun using a tool to check the digital VIN in a vehicle’s computer, giving them confirmation of a clone -- something that it is otherwise difficult to detect.

The Louisville Metro Police Department said that in 2023, it seized about 30 stolen and cloned vehicles with more than a dozen linked to Florida.

Those who clone VINs can be arrested, and those who buy cloned vehicles can have them seized as evidence.

“If you took out a loan for that vehicle, you’re still liable for the loan payments of that vehicle,” Lopez said.

Experts recommend looking beyond just the VIN, checking the entire vehicle history for any inconsistencies.

It is also recommended to pop open a vehicle’s hood to ensure the vehicle is in the clear.

The Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has a breakdown of what you should do before buying a used vehicle. Click here to read more about that.

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Jason Kelly

Jason Kelly, WFTV.com

Jason Kelly joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2014. He serves as the station's Digital Executive Producer.