CarTest! Expert car reviews and advice     |     home
up      previous  next
CarTest! features hundreds of pages of car reviews and automotive resources to assist you in making a decision about the best vehicle to drive. Our logo photo of Continental Flying Spur foot pedals is  courtesy of Bentley.
© All rights reserved.

Protecting your car from theft

Can thieves get keys to your vehicle by simply copying the VIN?

Photo: Subaru Canada.Can car thieves peer through the windshield of your vehicle, write down the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) code from the label on the dashboard, go to a local car dealership and request a duplicate key be made based on the VIN code?

Is this suggestion just an urban legend floating around on the Internet?
Here's what a Toronto driver says when he checked this out (we've left his name out to protect his privacy).

"I didn't believe this e-mail, so I called Chrysler-Dodge and pretended I had lost my keys. They told me to just bring in the VIN number, and they would cut me one on the spot, and I could order the keyless device if I wanted.

"So it's true. The car dealer's Parts Department could make a duplicate key from the VIN number for anyone, including a thief, who will return to your car. He doesn't have to break in, do any damage to the vehicle, or draw attention to himself. All he has to do is walk up to your car, insert the key and off he goes to a local chop shop with your vehicle.

"To avoid this from happening to you, simply put some tape (electrical tape, duct tape or medical tape) across the metal VIN label located on your dashboard. By law, you cannot remove the VIN, but you can cover it so it can't be viewed through the windshield by a car thief. I slipped a 3 x 5 card over the VIN number."

Being suspicious, CarTest! checked out this story on Here's its take on the situation.

Comments: While there has been at least one well-publicized case (in 2002) of an auto theft ring using a ploy similar to the above to steal vehicles from used car lots, it is a complicated and time-consuming modus operandi and not the most likely way a thief might try to steal your car.

Still, the method can work, as proven in an experiment conducted by WTAE-TV News in Pittsburgh, PA.

"After getting permission from the owners, we jotted down VIN numbers from four different vehicles. Then, we went to four different car dealerships with a hidden camera. We told the same kind of story that a thief might tell: We locked the key in the car and needed a new one.

"First, we went to a dealership and tried to get a key made for a 2003 Blazer. It couldn't have been any easier.

"Next, we walked into another dealership with a phoney story. Half an hour later, we had a key that got us into -- and away with -- the car. The key cost $2 and we paid cash. No one asked for identification."

Three out of the four car dealers struck duplicate keys with no questions asked, the TV reporters found, even though most dealerships have a policy of demanding identification before doing so.

A different investigation conducted by the Sacramento Bee in 2003 found that car dealers were not only aware of the scam but in some cases believed they had actually foiled attempts to illegally obtain keys by insisting on proper documentation from the perpetrators.

Covering the dashboard VIN code is an option for vehicle owners concerned that they may be victimized in this manner.

In contrast, here's what had to say about this:

"It is true that Vehicle Identification Numbers can be used to generate a new key for many cars. According to law enforcement sources, however, a person cannot simply walk into a dealership and have a key made. Responsible dealerships require proof of ownership and some states have laws that require it. Also, the Vehicle Identification Number is required to be visible. That's why it is located in a place where it can be easily seen, such as on top of a dashboard.  While there are some thieves who may use VIN's to have keys illegally made, the use of Vehicle Identification Numbers for locating and recovering stolen cars has been far more valuable than hiding them.

And finally, here is some sage advice from Kerry Wilson at His key point: The vast majority of cars are not stolen this way.

"The two most common tools for stealing your car are your own keys, or a screwdriver. I've seen several sites that claim that at least 70% of the car thefts are by non-professionals. Your car's VIN number is your best protection for getting the vehicle back. It should probably be written or scratched into your car in more places, not fewer.

"I visited many law enforcement sites about car theft and they say nothing about covering your VIN number to discourage thieves, but instead these sites encourage you to write your VIN number all over the car, including on your most valuable car parts and etching it onto all the windows of the vehicle.

"After a car is stolen, if the thief wants to resell the car, then the first thing a car thief wants to do is get rid of the old VIN number and replace it with a new one. He will create a title to go with it and then resell (fence) the vehicle.

"Many law enforcement officials believe that thieves will not steal any vehicle that has the VIN number etched on all the windows because they will have to replace these windows before they can get rid of your car. This will cost them a great deal of money and significantly slow the turnaround on processing your car and fencing it. If you etch the number on the car parts it will make chopping it more time-consuming.

Here's the bottom line: You can make up your own mind. Although, covering the VIN number might give you peace of mind, it is unlikely to protect you from most thieves. Posted Nov. 20, 2009.


Search CarTest!
Custom Search