What's the new way to cool down a hot car? Law-enforcement officers across the U.S. are seeing a rash of so-called car clonings, in which the vehicle identification number (VIN) of an unsuspecting auto is duplicated on a stolen one. Miami police last month busted an $8 million cloning ring as part of an 18-month investigation that has so far expanded into seven other states and Canada and arrested dozens of suspects, including illegal-alien smugglers in Phoenix, Ariz., and drug traffickers in Virginia Beach, Va. Says Florida attorney general Charlie Crist: "It's a new method that makes [stolen cars] much harder to track."
Thieves can clone any car by writing down its VIN--which is required by law to be displayed on the bottom of the dashboard and is also found on parts of the frame--and using bar-code software, high-quality home printers and metal-stamping tools to create identical tags for a stolen car of the same make and model. If a car has duplicated tags, a police officer running the VIN through his computer during a routine traffic stop can't tell that it is hot.
Determining whether a car is a well-forged clone can take hours. "It is really an art," says Dennie Huggins, field-operations chief for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which has tracked cloned cars in all 50 states and reports that counterfeiters usually target high-status rides like the BMW X5 and General Motors' Cadillac Escalade and Hummer. And since not all state vehicle databases are linked, thieves can retitle cars with the same VINs in multiple states without setting off alarm bells. All of which makes buying a used car an even dicier proposition. --By Brian Bennett