Edmonton auto buyers urged to be wary after vehicle cloning operation discovered

Three people have been arrested and seven stolen vehicles have been recovered in what Edmonton police describe as a "VIN cloning" operation.

'When you're buying a $35,000 truck for $20,000, you know, if the deal's too good to be true, it probably is'

Det. Mark Kassian points out the location of a vehicle identification number, or VIN, on a vehicle seized in a VIN-cloning operation. (CBC)

Three people have been arrested and seven stolen vehicles have been recovered in what Edmonton police describe as a "VIN cloning" operation.

VIN cloning is when thieves take a vehicle identification number (VIN) from a legally registered vehicle to hide the identity of a stolen or salvaged vehicle, typically of the same make, model and year, Det. Mark Kassian said Thursday.

"If you're purchasing a used vehicle, it's important to ask questions, especially when buying from a private seller," Kassian said.

It's important to ask about the vehicle's owner history and ask to see original documents relating to service, he said. A newer vehicle with only one key fob should also raise suspicion. 

The thieves use the stolen identification numbers to create ownership documents to register or sell the stolen vehicle. The stolen vehicle becomes an identical clone of the legitimate vehicle, with no obvious signs it was stolen, he said.

In some cases, thieves manufacture VIN labels and VIN plates and obtain vehicle registration using forged documents in efforts to legitimize the stolen vehicle.

People buying a used vehicle should make sure the vehicle identification number on the door sticker matches the plate on the dash, said Det. Mark Kassian. (CBC)

On Sept. 27, police searched a business in the area of 121A Street and 121st Avenue where they discovered an active vehicle cloning operation.

Kassian said this was a "sophisticated group," one of the first seen by investigators that was trying to legitimize such a mass quantity of vehicles.

Documents were changed several times in a week to create distance in the paper trail, he said.

While police have shut down this particular operation, Kassian believes there are more.

"If you can steal a 40, 50 or 80,000 dollar car and legitimize that and sell it to somebody and get 40, 50 or 80,000 dollars cash, there's obviously profits to be made," Kassian said.

Only one of the vehicles seized in the operation, a truck, had already been sold to an unsuspecting individual, Kassian said.

"When you're buying a $35,000 truck for $20,000, you know, if the deal's too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

Search reveals operation

Police were able to recover a stolen 2008 BMW X6 and a stolen and cloned 2008 Mercedes ML55.

They also recovered two stolen 2014 Range Rovers, one of which was cloned, two stolen and cloned 2016 Dodge Ram 1500s, and a stolen 2015 Jeep Cherokee.

One of the Range Rovers had been stolen from a Calgary dealership on Sunday night, Kassian said.

The estimated value of the recovered property is approximately $400,000. 

Police also searched a residence in The Hamptons neighbourhood in west Edmonton where they seized 269 grams of cocaine worth approximately $27,000, as well as a quantity of marijuana, cash and evidence related to the cloning operation.

So far,16 criminal charges have been laid in this investigation, but Kassian said further charges are expected to be laid against at least two other people.

In 2017, police recovered 92 vehicles through similar investigations and are "on track" to recover at least that many in 2018, Kassian said.

'The deal was probably a little too good to be true'

4 years ago
Duration 1:34
Stolen VIN number scheme has Edmonton police advising caution to potential buyers of used vehicles.

10 tips to avoid buying a cloned/stolen vehicle:

1. Carefully examine the public VIN plate on the dash of the vehicle
Compare the number to the one found on the registration. Check the manufacturer's label on the driver's door or door frame beside the latch, and compare the VIN on that label with the public VIN that is found on the dash. If the label is missing or is scratched out, there is a problem.

2. Ask for proof of ownership and identification from the seller
Compare photo identification to the name on the vehicle's registration document and make sure they are the same. Record the seller's driver's licence number and contact information on the bill of sale.

3. Check the VIN on the public Canadian Police Information Centre website
The CPIC check is free and will tell you to contact police if there's something wrong with the VIN.

4. Consider online services such as CARFAX or CARPROOF
Pay particular attention to a vehicle's registration history. If the vehicle goes back and forth several times between provinces and/or states, it may be a clone. Also, look for any noted color changes and/or odometer discrepancies.

5. Google the VIN
If the vehicle is listed for sale in another province or country, the listing may appear on Google, indicating the possibility of a clone.

6. Have a Vehicle Information Report (VIR) done through any registry agent
This will notify you of any liens, as well as the vehicle registration history and status within Alberta. This is NOT a stolen vehicle check.

7. Bring a friend
It's always a good idea to have another set of eyes to witness the transaction and corroborate any discussions with the seller.

8. Question low sale prices
If the asking price is too good to be true, ask why. Be suspicious if the seller demands cash. It's a good idea to complete cash transactions at a financial institution.

9. Keep detailed records of the transaction
Retain original copies of bills of sale (proof of ownership), vehicle registrations, service records and the like. Your bill of sale is your only legal proof of ownership.

10. Your best weapon is your brain. Use common sense and good judgment.
Don't allow your desire to buy the vehicle to override your intuition.