Buyer beware: how to spot a used car that’s been cloned

Buyer beware how to spot a used car that's been cloned

Buy a cloned car in good faith and it is likely to be impounded by the police, and you’ll have nothing to show for your money

Most people will be familiar with identity theft. Criminals gain valuable sensitive information about an individual in order to impersonate them and take out loans or credit in their name. But how many drivers have heard of cloned cars? And even if the expression is familiar, how do you tell a fake, cloned car from a genuine model?

A cloned car is a model that has been stolen then given a new identity. This is generally by replacing its number plates with those from a car that’s the same make, model, colour and even age. It means that the car won’t register as dodgy in basic ID checks such as those from police Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras.

It’s a problem that more drivers need to be aware of. Last week, eBay hit the headlines after it was revealed that organised criminals in Manchester had been using the popular car buying site to sell stolen cars as legitimate vehicles.

It means that when drivers fail to conduct full and thorough checks of a used car, they can end up handing over a small fortune for a car that will be taken off their hands by the police, leaving them with no car and no money. Meanwhile, the crooks vanish into thin air.

One victim, a retired police officer, lost £17,000 buying a Mercedes. Another paid more than £18,000 for a BMW that turned out to be stolen and was soon returned to its rightful owner by police, leaving him penniless.

These are the steps every used car buyer should take to protect themselves from buying a cloned car.

Spot a cloned car: the advert

Buying a used car from someone you can trust, or a reputable trader, is the safest way to go. However, for the many drivers looking to bag a bargain on auction websites, check that the advert is posted by an individual with a long-standing track record of selling on the auction site, and overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers.

If there’s no sign of this, do they have a legitimate reason, such as being new to eBay? If it’s a car sales site like Auto Trader, look out for poor spelling and be wary if there’s precious little detail about the car. Also, if the price of the car seems too good to be true, then it most likely is. Criminals price cloned cars for a quick sale.

Spot a cloned car: check the MOT history for free

Armed with the advertised car’s registration number, it’s the work of a moment to check its MOT history online. This is a useful way to build a picture of the car, verify its annual mileage and prepare questions for the seller. For example, if the last MOT advised that the exhaust would soon need replacing and the front tyres were down to 2mm tread depth, simply ask the seller what advisories were given at the last MOT. If they say there were none, you know they’re lying or ignorant of the facts. Either way, walk away and look at another car.

Spot a cloned car: does the seller have all paperwork and servicing invoices?

Don’t bother viewing a used car if the paperwork is ‘in the post’ or ‘somewhere in a drawer’. A genuine seller should have all the relevant paperwork, notably the all-important V5C registration document. Organised types will also have a service book that’s stamped by reputable garages, keep a file of all associated invoices, such as a receipt for when they bought the vehicle, and bills for servicing work carried out.

Spot a cloned car: view the car at the registered keeper’s address

If all is going well, the next step is to view the car. Check the paperwork first, asking for a separate form of photo ID. You can then check this against the owner’s name and address on the V5C.

Also, look for the ‘DVL’ watermark on the registration certificate. Then check that the names and addresses on the various invoices match those on the V5C and ID, or correspond with their previous address or past owners’ details.

Another good tip is to phone several of the garages that have invoiced the seller. Ask them to confirm that servicing was carried out as per the paperwork.

Spot a cloned car: how to check a car’s VIN number

Buyer beware how to spot a used car that's been cloned

Every car has a unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). This will be listed on the V5C document, and should be compared with those on the car’s plates. These can be found in the engine bay, or the base of the windscreen, or sometimes inside the doorframe.

See that the engine number printed on the V5C matches the stamped plate in the engine bay. If either this or the VIN fail to match up, or there are signs of tampering, report it to the police.

Spot a cloned car: pay for a vehicle history check

You can pay to ensure a car doesn’t have outstanding finance on it, hasn’t been reported stolen, or declared an insurance write-off. You do this with a vehicle history check. A quick Internet search will offer lots, and Which? has a comparison table.

Spot a cloned car: never pay cash

Assuming you’ve got this far and no alarm bells have been set off, it’s worth making an offer. However, if you are buying from a stranger, never pay in cash. It leaves no trace or proof of purchase, and criminals like nothing more than to leave no evidence behind.

A modest cash deposit is acceptable. The remaining funds can then be paid via a bank transfer using a Faster Payments Service. There may be a slight lull, as the seller awaits the funds to clear in their bank account. But for the peace of mind of both parties, it’s worth it.

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