Criminals steal off-roaders and

then `ring' them with the

identity of written-off vehicles,

says James Ruppert

CAR CRIME is sexy. It must be, otherwise TV producers wouldn't be so eager to fill prime-time television with scenes of GTIs giving police the runaround on a housing estate.

You know the score by now - grainy video footage, high speeds, sirens, frantic commentary, maybe a collision, then a chase on foot, all finished off by the obligatory hovering helicopter with a heat-sensitive camera that picks up the thief hiding in a potting-shed.

Undeniably it is all rather exciting, and makes for brilliant, and cheap, TV. Recently you could tune into BBC's X Cars, which follows the exploits of Manchester's stolen vehicle squad. Then there is Police Stop!, not only a highly successful television series, but also a multi-million video-to-buy phenomenon.

Even World in Action has got on the bandwagon with its own investigation into car crime, uncovering scams with exciting slang names such as "ringing" and "cloning". The police, the Home Office, the RAC and a company called HPI Equifax thought it was time to hold a Car Crime Clinic to explain the dangers of buying a used car.

Before the conference began, the video screen flickered not with a car chase, but with a soap - Coronation Street, to be precise. If you don't follow the programme, a recent storyline concerned Alma, the cafe proprietor, who bought a car. Mike, her husband, had bought a second-hand car, but when Alma ran a check, she found it was stolen. The check that Alma did was an "HPI".

HPI-Equifax provides the motor trade and public with information on used vehicles by checking through a number of databases to establish the car's "hidden history". If it is stolen, or an insurance write-off, or still subject to finance, the buyer avoids making a costly mistake.

Once, the most common fraud was to buy a wrecked car from a salvage yard, then graft its identity on to an identical stolen vehicle to create what is known as a "ringer". Now, however, an even simpler scam is emerging, called "cloning".

Detective Superintendent Bernie Watson, Head of the Surrey Police Stolen Vehicle Squad, explained that cloning involved taking the identity of a legitimately owned vehicle and putting it on to the stolen car. A fraudulent application for a vehicle licence is then made at the Post Office, while the buyer is told that the registration document has been sent off to the DVLA. "People fall for it regularly. They don't check everything, and they should," he said.

Owing to the transient nature of the criminal and the mobility of this sort of crime, these villains don't spend much time accurately grafting in the legitimate vehicle's identity, and also they ignore the fact that the legitimate car may itself be on one or more of HPI's Registers.

Cloning can follow the most complex or simple forms - but essentially the crime is always the same, resulting in two vehicles driving around with superficially the same identity. Sooner or later, the police find out.

A typical example was a two-year-old Land Rover Discovery TDi. It had 24,000 miles on the clock and was worth around pounds 16,000. Off-road vehicles such as this are in demand and are easy to sell.

Det Supt Watson guided a camera around the 4x4, and the image was relayed to the video screen. The first thing visible was the VIN (vehicle identification number) fitted behind the windscreen. This should match the VIN plate on the front "slam" panel under the bonnet. It did, but the plate was a forgery. The protective wax sprayed on at the factory was curiously missing from the plate, while everything else had a thick film.

Then the camera picked up shards of metal caught by the grease around the bonnet catch. Clearly the rivets which held the original plate had been drilled out. Under the wheel arch, it picked up more numbers stamped on the chassis. Some vigorous rubbing showed that this was, in fact, a replacement section from another vehicle welded in.

All is revealed when a new picture is flashed on the screen - an utterly flattened and written-off Discovery to which the identity belonged. This car has been "ringed".

Unfortunately the most basic car-buying mistake is taking the registration V5 document at face value, which is never proof of ownership. For the legitimate car trade, a "HPI" is a reflex action, but getting the public to do the same, particularly when buying privately, is proving to be more difficult.

Nicki Webster, marketing director of HPI-Equifax, said that most cloned vehicles were poor-quality ringers. "If the crook doesn't bother to change the VIN number, then the HPI vehicle registration mark/ VIN cross-check will reveal that there is something wrong."

I suggested to Tony Worthy, managing director of HPI, that the pounds 28.50 fee might be the cause. "We don't find that our service is price sensitive; all we need to do is get the message across that we can help."

HPI-Equifax: 01722 422422