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How To Tell If A Car Is Stolen

Expert advice on how to spot if a car is stolen.

Last year, fewer cars were stolen in the UK than at any time in the last half a century. But there were still almost 70,000 cars separated illegally from their owners, some of which will have been broken for parts or shipped overseas.
A large proportion of these stolen cars will have been sold on to unsuspecting buyers – all of whom were likely to be left massively out of pocket. That’s because if you buy a stolen car, it belongs to the insurance company that paid out for it when it was pinched. So fail to do your homework and you’ll end up losing your car as well as your money.

The first thing you should do when considering buying any used car is to invest in a vehicle history check, because if the car is recorded as stolen, alarm bells will start ringing straight away. But there are lots of other ways of working out whether or not the car is legit, because the thieves may not have made it that easy for you.
For starters, they could have switched the number plates, so the car’s true identity is hidden. All they need to do is fit a set of plates from a different car that’s the same make, model and colour, so when you run an identity check it’s likely that everything will appear to be fine. After all, you’ll be running a check on a legitimate car that’s sitting on somebody’s drive somewhere. That’s where your detective work has to start…
Check the paperwork
When a car is stolen, it’s unlikely that any of its paperwork will be taken too, so start by asking to see the registration document (the V5C). You should check that the address of the registered keeper on this document is where you’re viewing the car. It has been known for unscrupulous vendors to sell a car from someone else’s drive while they’re away, so make sure the house is open and that you’re able to go inside.
Also on the V5C is the car’s chassis number, or VIN (Vehicle Identity Number). This is unique to the car and it stays with it for its entire life. It’s a 17-digit number on the V5C, and it should tie up with the plate that’s probably in the lower corner of the windscreen, on the passenger side. Swapping this plate means removing the windscreen, so many thieves don’t bother – they just hope that you’re not savvy enough to make the check.
Another check that you need to make is that the engine number on the registration document matches the one on the engine that’s in the car. It’ll be stamped into a machined face on one side of the engine block. While engines can be swapped for legitimate reasons, it’s not a common occurrence, so be wary if the numbers don’t match. Besides; if the engine has been replaced legitimately, the V5C should reflect that.
Any cherished car should come with a load of service history and hopefully plenty of old MoTs, invoices and other bits of documentation. If none of this is present at all, suspect foul play. Even an uncaring owner is likely to have at least some paperwork to hand, even if it’s just the invoice for the last set of tyres that was fitted.
At the very least, see how long the seller has owned the car. It’s possible – but unlikely – that they’ll have gone to the trouble of acquiring a new V5C in their own name. If this new V5C shows that the seller has owned the car for just a matter of weeks or even days, ask them why they’re selling it on so soon.
Security is key
Because their security is so good, most modern cars are stolen by using a key. The usual method is to break into the owner’s house, pinch the key then make off with the car. But the chances are that just the one key will be taken in a bid to make off with the car – and any new car will be supplied with more than one key.
At the very least there should be two keys – or more likely, three. One will be a master key, and there should be another pair for everyday use. If either of the everyday keys are lost, a new one can be reprogrammed using the master. But if you’ve got just one everyday key and it gets lost, you might have to have the car reprogrammed – and that can run into four figures. So don’t buy a car that comes with just one key.
Trust your instincts
Even without making any of these checks, your instincts may tell you that something isn’t right – and you must trust your instincts. While many dodgy sellers are very convincing, if somehow everything doesn’t add up, just walk away. After all, there are plenty of other used cars out there, even if they don’t appear to be the bargain that this one is.
On that note, remember that if a deal seems too good to be true it probably is, so be very suspicious of cars that seem to be intriguingly cheap. Also, if you buy from a reputable dealer you have more protection and they should have made all the necessary checks for you. Buy privately and it’s easier to get your fingers burned – but just a few basic checks should soon put your mind at rest.
Richard Dredge
June 2015