Next-Gen Car-Theft Tactics Are New Model for Criminals

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The ethical debate over cloning has been going on for decades before and since Dolly the sheep in 1996, though who could’ve ever foreseen that someday humans would start cloning cars? But that’s what’s happening … well, sort of.

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Whereas there have been plenty of arguments over whether genetic cloning is a crime against nature, no one disagrees that car cloning is just a plain crime. We’ve been talking quite a bit lately about the newfangled measures auto thieves are taking in this technologically advanced age in which anti-theft features and sophisticated investigative techniques are making it increasingly difficult to steal a car — or at least for criminals to cover their tracks. Among those theft measures, car cloning is one of the newest.

Unlike other types of cloning, car cloning doesn’t happen in a lab. According to Des Plaines, Ill.-based nonprofit the National Insurance Crime Bureau, it typically starts in a parking or dealership lot, where the thief copies a legally documented car’s vehicle identification number and then uses it to produce counterfeit tags. The perpetrators then steal a similar car and replace its VIN with the counterfeit one. After creating counterfeit ownership documents for the cloned vehicle, the thieves then are able to sell the stolen vehicle to an unsuspecting buyer.

“With this counterfeit tag, the stolen vehicle is now a ‘clone’ of the original vehicle that was legally owned and innocently parked in a lot,” NICB stated. “With the counterfeit VIN tag, the stolen vehicle can easily be sold without detection by government agencies.”

Although auto theft has plummeted by 58 percent in the past quarter-century from a peak of about 1.7 million, nearly 700,000 vehicles were still stolen in 2013. So while anti-theft technologies such as smart keys are indeed curbing crime, they’re also forcing innovative criminals to come up with more clever approaches. In addition to cloning, other next-gen auto-theft tactics include illegally acquired keys, rental-return scams and fraudulent financing, NICB reported.

Thieves get illegal keys, for example, by posing as vehicle owners seeking replacements from a dealer or locksmith. In rental-return scams, a perpetrator who was issued multiple keys will return the car with one real key and one “blank” phony, then return to the lot later and simply drive off with the car; or they’ll place a tracking device on the car before returning it, wait until the car has been rented a few times more by others in order to allay suspicion, then track the car to its location and steal it. Fraudulent financing involves using identity theft to secure loans for pricey cars straight from the dealer, and then shipping the cars to a foreign seaport to sell them for a tidy profit before anyone gets wise to the ruse.

And those are just the schemes that auto-theft investigative agencies like NICB understand the mechanics of well enough to explain. The latest development in stealing cars is so mysterious, the tools of the illicit trade are known only as “mystery devices.” While the existence of such a thing sounds downright folkloric, the related discussion is very real.

At a seminar of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators earlier this month in Phoenix, NICB polled attendees and found that nearly three-quarters believe in the existence of so-called mystery devices that can be used to unlock a vehicle, while 36 percent reported believing that these devices are also capable of starting cars’ engines — and 8 percent claimed they’d actually witnessed a theft incident involving a mystery device.

“Last year this was barely a blip on the radar of law enforcement and theft investigators,” NICB Chief Operating Officer Jim Schweitzer said in a statement. “Now it’s getting everyone’s attention, including the manufacturers who are the front line of defense against these devices.”

Freaked out yet? Well, take some comfort in knowing that not a single incident attributable to the use of a “mystery device” has yet been confirmed, according to NICB. But it does serve as a reminder that just as anti-theft devices have advanced beyond the skill sets of many criminals, perhaps it’s inevitable that in-kind advancements for anti-anti-theft devices are just around the next technological turn.

Photo of Matt Schmitz
Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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