Car cloning: all the facts

  • How cloning works and how to spot it
  • Get a car check to reveal some history
  • What to do if you do get your car cloned

Despite the more elaborate scams that catch out car owners and buyers, the rather simplistic car cloning con continues to cause problems. Car owners can end up with huge bills for unpaid parking tickets, speeding tickets or even used to commit crimes – here's how to avoid being stung.

As well as owners getting caught out by cloning problems, anyone looking to buy a used car could find themselves the victim of the scam. However, doing a car check before you buy could help you to spot a cloned car before it's too late.

To try and help you avoid the problems, we've got all the information you need on how the scam works, how you can spot the problem and what to do if your car has been cloned.

How do you clone a car?

Car cloning is a fairly simple scam for criminals. It often starts with the theft of a car. The thieves will then look for another car almost identical to the one they have stolen and copy the plates of the car. They may even go as far as stealing the original plates.

The stolen car now looks legal to online and visual police checks, based on the false plates - so they have covered up the its true identity and can avoid being caught.

This car could then be used without insurance, to dodge parking fines and avoid speeding tickets, or even be used in some kind of criminal activity. The first time the owner of the legitimate car will know anything is when they start to get fines and tickets posted to them.

How to spot a cloned car

For owners this is an easy one. If you are receiving any kind of fines or tickets that have been incurred somewhere you haven't been, then the chances are your car has been cloned; if your number plates have been stolen you should inform the police and obtain a crime number in case you're stopped.

For buyers, there are a number of clues. If the V5C is missing, or not from the seller's address, that's a significant red flag. This document could be forged, however. The easiest way to verify that is to attempt to use the online car tax website, which will request the document reference number.

Although an online MoT history is available, it will only reveal the details for the genuine vehicle attached to that number plate, unless the original has been off the road and VIN checks haven't been performed during the MoT test. Large gaps or discrepancies in mileage are a sign that you should be extra careful.

Always get a history check before proceeding

If you're looking to buy a used car then the best way to check it doesn't have a shady past is to do a car history check.

A history check will be able to give you details like the mileage, which could help give it away when compared to the car you're looking to buy. Then there are the engine details which might not match with the car being sold, as the criminals may not have been able to get an exact match, and any discrepancies here might mean everything is not as it seems.

Finally the car check will also let you know the last change of owner and if a dodgy seller manages to guess this right, then they should be on Deal or No Deal. If they won't give this information or it's nothing like the details you get, it's time to walk away. 

Check with the manufacturer records

If you have the VIN, get a factory build sheet from the dealer or manfucturer that will list obvious items like engine specification, colour and trim, as well as details like equipment and factory accessories that a cloner may have overlooked.

Visual checks of the car must include the VIN plate in the windscreen and under the bonnet. Check online for information on other locations, such as under the carpet or in the boot. A stolen car wearing the plates and VIN of a cloned (or written off) car is known as a 'ringer'; often these can appear to be completely legal as it's the body of the car, not the identity, that has been stolen.

Modern sophistication means the surest way to check for a cloned vehicle is to look in the infotainment system for details like VIN, often on pages associated with software version and status. Where that access is not possible, garage diagnostics will reveal details.

What to do if your car has been cloned

If you have been the victim of any cloning scam then the first thing you need to do is return any fines or tickets that have been sent to you, along with any evidence you have to prove that you weren't around at the time of the incident.

The next thing to do is to notify the DVLA of what has happened so that they have the plate on record for future use. The final issue is to inform the police so that they can trace and prosecute the culprit.

What can you do if you bought a cloned car?

Not a lot. In rare cases a car may be cloned to misrepresent an unroadworthy or otherwise less valuable vehicle that the seller does have good title to, in which case you may be able to take legal action for misrepresentation. In this scenario at least, you will retain the car you bought.

Far more common is a stolen vehicle, and there is no protection for the buyer in this case except in rather complex legal arguments. If the seller didn't have good title to the property, then they cannot pass on good title; vehicles subject to insurance payouts remain the property of the insurance company, otherwise they will be owned by a finance company or simply someone else's property. Legally, the buyer has to return the goods, and then recover funds from a trader or allegedly private, and dishonest, seller.

Some degree of protection is available when paying by credit (not debit) cards, and if in doubt we'd recommend this course of action. Or better yet, looking for that dream car elsewhere.