Car thieves in Edmonton appear to have a new theme song — send in the clones.

Police say the latest trend for thieves is the cloned car — a scam where they copy the vehicle identification number, or VIN, from a legally registered car.

"Car cloning is similar to personal identity theft," said Det. Dan Duiker with the Edmonton police auto theft unit. "Each VIN is unique, like a fingerprint. But if it can be cloned successfully, the result is two or more vehicles with the same VIN."

Cloned Dodges

Police held a news conference Tuesday to warn people about cloned vehicles as part of Fraud Prevention Month. (CBC)

A VIN is stamped into a metal or plastic plate, or printed on a tamper-proof decal. It can be found on the dashboard below the windshield or on the driver-side door frame.

Duiker said some low-level thieves try to alter or reattach the VIN, but often leave behind signs that it has been tampered with.

Criminal groups, he said, use more sophisticated methods to clone vehicles in "chop shops."

After the VIN is cloned, thieves use the ID number to register then sell the stolen car.

Edmonton police deal with one or two reports of cloned vehicles every week, Duiker said.

"It's almost become common," he said, pointing to half a dozen cloned vehicles in the EPS impound lot.

"Because these cars look legitimate, it can be hard to get a true picture of the problem," said Dan Service with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "But car cloning is a significant issue on the rise in Canada.

"Cloning cars is complex work requiring sophisticated skills, equipment and networks most often linked to organized crime," said Service.

Duiker said cloning is a lucrative business. A thief can spend $500 to $1,000 to clone a car, then sell it to an unsuspecting buyer many times that amount.

Police want to draw attention to this kind of theft, he said, and "help people learn to buy more with their brain not so much on emotion."

Thieves use VIN cloning to steal not just cars and trucks but also boats, RVs and heavy equipment, he said.

Toronto police busted a global ring last year that involved hundreds of stolen vehicles worth $30 million.

Before making a deal for a car, Duiker said buyers should:

  • Examine the VIN to make sure it hasn't been tampered with;
  • Check the VIN on the Canadian Police Information Centre website;
  • Use the Insurance Bureau of Canada's free VIN verification service to check if the vehicle was stolen or written off;
  • Have a vehicle information report done at an Alberta registry office;
  • Ask for proof of ownership and photo ID from the seller;
  • Avoid paying cash. Use a bank draft instead.