Classic Car Fraud - Part 4 - VIN Numbers Are Critical

The following material is an excerpt of an article first published by Bryan W. Shook, a practicing attorney who specializes on matters involving VIN matters, title fraud, VIN error and general collector car problem resolution. To read his full article, click here.

Starting in approximately 1955, US auto manufacturers began using a unique Vehicle Identification Number (aka: VIN) to specifically identify all US built automobiles. The compelling force behind this change was a desire to work with law enforcement and state DMV's to reduce the amount and opportunity for VIN fraud and stolen vehicle trafficking.
The VIN is the DNA of a vehicle. The VIN is the number by which a vehicle is registered and titled. Since a VIN plays such an important role in the identity of a vehicle, much fraud has arisen over the years surrounding VIN's,

Beginning with the 1970 model year, nearly all vehicles produced for sale in the United States have had a VIN placed in at least three distinct locations.

The VIN visible through the windshield  has come to be known as the "Public VIN" and is probably is the VIN most are familiar with. Another location for vehicles produced after August 31, 1969 had the VIN included in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) certification sticker adhered to the vehicle.

Starting with the 1968 model year, the process of stamping the VIN into frames became uniform.  The VIN was stamped into various metal objects on the vehicle including the frame, the body, the engine, transmission and other places.  The VIN on a frame or body became known as the "Hidden VIN", the "Confidential VIN" or the "Federal VIN",  This number is usually not a full, complete VIN but a derivative thereof. The VIN on the engine and transmission would also be a derivative of the VIN and it should match the public VIN provided the engine and/or transmission are the originals.


As previously stated, a vehicle's identification number is very important as it is the only unique identifier a vehicle possesses and accordingly, it's integrity and validity must be established and preserved.  This is especially true with collectible vehicles given their inherent and actual value(s).

Shook wrote, "When you look at a vehicle for potential purchase, you must view the VIN in as many of the locations are you reasonably are able to view it. Start with the 'Public' VIN and see if it is consistent with other examples of the year, make and model; ensure it has not been tampered with or affixed in such a way as to make it not appear as original. If the 'Public' VIN is missing, loose or appears tampered with in any way, contact a marque specialist and attempt to locate the 'Hidden' or 'Confidential' VIN for the vehicle to ensure the "Public" VIN is the proper VIN." 


If the 'Confidential' and 'Public" VIN do not match, a major problem exists that needs to be addressed professionally and legally!  If the VINs contradict one another, the vehicle is an unsalable vehicle with a title defect; specifically the vehicle purports to have two unique identities.

Common reasons for the numbers not matching are that the vehicle is or was stolen or salvaged in the past and another VIN ( a good "clean" VIN) was affixed in the public location to make the vehicle appear as valid & clean. In reality, the vehicle is neither valid or clean.

Another reason for conflicting VINs is that the  vehicle was rebuilt from one or more other vehicles. If a vehicle has been rebuilt and bears two VINs that can be a problem as this is the usual excuse given when a vehicle has been "re-tagged" to disguise a title problem or a former theft.  Extra scrutiny must be employed in this instance.

A third popular reason for conflicting VINs may be an instance of a "rebody" project.  A "rebody" is when a vehicle has had the original vehicle's body replaced and the VIN of the original vehicle affixed to the replacement "donor" body. The legal issues involving a rebodied vehicle were contained in a recent Garagistry blog. 

Simply stated, during any restoration or repair project, special care is required to protect the VIN identification materials.  Garagistry has noted several instances where owners have exhibited excellent care in the preservation of the VIN tag during restoration projects. THE LAW
Many laws have been enacted to protect the integrity of the VIN.  Federal law 18 U.S.C § 511 declares the alteration of a VIN could be a federal criminal offense.  Furthermore, 18 U.S.C. § 2321 declares that whoever buys, receives, possess or obtains control of, with the intent to sell or otherwise dispose of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part, knowing that an identification number for such motor vehicle has been removed, obliterated, tampered with, or altered, could be fined or imprisoned for up to ten (10) years.

In layman's terms, the VIN of a vehicle must be preserved and protected. If you are in possession of a vehicle with a VIN, or VIN tag or VIN plate which has been altered, removed and replaced or otherwise tampered with, serious civil and criminal offenses are involved.  Note: the consequence of an invalid VIN, according to Federal or appropriate State laws is not affected by the value, age, make or model of vehicle.

If you should find yourself in a situation where the validity of a VIN number of questionable, Garagistry urges you to secure the assistance of a qualified attorney who can analyze your situation, and assist you with the identification of legal options available.

To read Part 1 of this series, click here
To read Part 2 of this series, click here
To read Part 3 of this series, click here