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What is car cloning?

Did you know that your car could be cloned by criminals? Here’s what you need to know about car cloning, including how to check if a car has been cloned.

Did you know that your car could be cloned by criminals? Here’s what you need to know about car cloning, including how to check if a car has been cloned.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
27 JUNE 2023
6 min read
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What is car cloning?

Car cloning – or vehicle identity theft – is when a car is given a copied or stolen number plate to make it look like another vehicle of the same make, model and colour.

It’s like identity theft but for cars. It means that any crimes and offences committed using the cloned car will lead back to the owner of the car with the legally registered licence plate and mask the identity of the true criminal.

Criminals might use the car to avoid speeding fines and parking tickets. They might even use fake plates to sell a stolen car to an unsuspecting buyer. More worryingly, they might use a cloned car to commit more serious crimes like bank robberies.

How does car cloning work?

To clone a car, criminals get new, illegally obtained number plates that match the legally registered number plate of a vehicle of the same make, model and colour as the vehicle they’ve stolen or salvaged.

That means there are now two vehicles on the road with the same registration number: the original, legally registered car, and the cloned car.

If a cloned car is involved in a crime or the driver commits a traffic violation, the authorities will be directed to the address of the legally registered owner of the car that’s been cloned – not the real criminal.

When you register ownership of a new number plate, you’ll go to a Registered Number Plate Supplier (RNPS) and show the vehicle’s V5C registration certificate and ID to prove that you’re the owner of the car.

Criminals can get around this by:

  • Buying fake plates that mimic a real registration plate.
  • Going through unscrupulous online dealers who allow them to buy a real plate without giving the necessary evidence of ownership.
  • Physically stealing a registered licence plate from another vehicle. If you happen upon a vehicle with number plates missing, it’s likely this vehicle has been selected by criminals for cloning.

Sophisticated criminals can also take other steps to obscure the true identity of their vehicle, including making fraudulent registration documents, such as the car’s V5C log book.

They could also change the vehicle’s identification number (VIN) by replacing parts of the car. Also known as the chassis number, this unique 17-digit number can be found on the frame of the vehicle and is like the vehicle’s fingerprint.

How to check if your car has been cloned

You won’t usually realise you’re a victim of car cloning until you receive a visit from the police regarding a crime associated with your registration number. Or you might start getting penalty notices about traffic offences or congestion charges that are not related to you.

If your number plates are ever stolen, contact the police immediately.

If you do receive speeding tickets or other fixed penalty notices for your car, check them carefully rather than simply paying up. You may not be the one who’s responsible.

What happens if I buy a cloned car?

If you buy a cloned car, you’re likely to lose both the car and the money you paid for it. The police will normally want to question you about the sale and get as much information from you about the seller as possible. They can also seize the vehicle.

Some buyers of cloned vehicles have also found that not long after purchase their car has been stolen. The cloners have kept a key and driven the vehicle away to try the trick on another unsuspecting buyer.

If you’re buying a used car, make sure you do all the necessary checks. If a car’s being sold without V5C registration documents or a service history, that’s a definite red flag. Don’t go ahead. Look for another vehicle with the correct documentation. It isn’t worth the risk.

But a vehicle’s documents can also be forged, so be vigilant.

In some cases, your insurance provider might be able to offer legal assistance to help recover the money paid for the car from the seller. However, this largely depends on your policy coverage and the potential success of any claim made.

What should I do if my car has been cloned?

If you receive fines you know you don’t deserve, here’s what to do:

  • Return any fines or notices to the relevant issuing authorities with any evidence you might have to prove the fines aren’t yours, such as CCTV footage, daschcam footage, GPS data from your car or witness statements that prove you – and your car – weren’t in the area at the time stated on the notice.
  • Let the police know so they can attempt to trace and prosecute the culprit.
  • Contact the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and explain the situation. Include the crime reference number given to you by police.

  • Contact your insurance provider to tell them that your car has been cloned.

If your registration number has been cloned, you might consider getting a new private registration number. This could help you reduce the chance of receiving future fines or penalty notices in the mail.

How can I avoid buying a cloned vehicle?

If you’re buying a used car, here’s what to look for: 

Is the car suspiciously cheap? If you come across a car that’s way below the market price, it should ring alarm bells.

Before you go to see a car, ask the seller for the registration number, make and model, and MOT test number. You can then check online to see if the details you’ve been given match DVLA information. If anything doesn’t match, it’s a good sign that something might be amiss.

When you go to see the vehicle, a couple of simple checks will also help you avoid a cloned car: 

  • Check the logbook – it contains your V5C vehicle registration certificate. Make sure the number plates in the document and on the car match. Check that it has the right ‘DVL’ watermark to prove that the logbook is genuine.
    Look at the serial number. The DVLA advises that you should check that the number: "is not between BG8229501 to BG9999030, or BI2305501 to BI2800000. If it is, the V5C might be stolen – call the police as soon as it’s safe to do so." 

  • Ask to view the car at the address listed on the logbook and when you get there, check it’s the same one. Make sure the seller’s address on the logbook matches the one on their driving licence or utility bill. Asking to check may put potential fraudsters off selling to you too.

    Don’t buy a car in a car park, lay by or motorway service area – these are favourite spots for fraudsters with a ready excuse about why they are not doing it from home.
  • Check the vehicle identification number (VIN) and engine number and make sure these match the logbook. The VIN is usually stamped into the chassis of the vehicle, and it may also be on the bonnet, the dashboard and the driver’s door. Some cars also have their registration number etched into the window glass. If so, check to see if it matches or has been tampered with.
  • Check the vehicle’s other documentation for example does the seller have its service history and receipts for work? Do the receipts match the seller’s name and address? Is the mileage on any of these documents consistent with the vehicle’s mileage? 

Genuine sellers won’t mind you checking this kind of thing – and usually expect it.

Even if all looks good on the surface, just to be sure, don’t pay for a car with cash - even if they offer you a discount. A bank transfer or other traceable payment method will be easier for the police to track. If the car turns out to be stolen after all, they’ll have a better chance of catching the fraudster responsible.

Frequently asked questions

Can a personalised licence plate be cloned?

Yes, just as with automatically assigned number plates, private or personalised plates can be cloned. However, distinctive personalised licence plates may be less likely to be cloned because of how much they stand out.

What should I do if my number plates are stolen?

First, report the theft to the police. This will alert them to the fact that your licence number may be used on a cloned vehicle if a car with your licence plate is involved in a crime.

Next, contact the DVLA to notify them that your plates have been stolen and may have been cloned. If the police are unable to help you locate the cloned car, you will probably need to buy new licence plates.

What should I do if I suspect someone of selling a cloned vehicle?

Never buy a vehicle if you believe it may have been cloned.

If the car has been stolen, you will lose the car and you may not be able to get back the money you paid for it.

If you suspect someone of selling a stolen vehicle, contact the police as soon as it’s safe to do so.

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Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory