Finding that someone has taken your number-plate may not be the trivial nuisance it seems. Paul Kelbie investigates a spreading crime

Car cloning is big business and it's getting bigger. Police and motoring experts are increasingly alarmed at the rapid rise in vehicle-identity theft which is helping to finance organised crime in drugs, human trafficking and even terrorism.

Last week, Stephen Ladyman, the roads minister, announced the introduction of new "thief-proof" number-plates designed to crack down on car crime and reduce the estimated 33,000 plates stolen during 2004. The new plates, which are expected to be available by the autumn, are said to be resistant to theft and have been designed in response to the growing problem.

Many such crimes go unreported as victims either dismiss their loss as vandalism or don't feel it's worth reporting. However, for some, the loss of a number-plate is just the beginning of a nightmare, as they start receiving speeding tickets or parking fines from areas of the country they have never visited.

Cloning is where criminals either steal or copy the number plates from legitimate vehicles and attach them to an identical one which is either sold to an unsuspecting buyer or used in other crimes ranging from the theft of fuel from filling stations and avoidance of congestion charges to armed robbery and drugs deals. Cloning can also be used to mask another vehicle which has been put illegally back on the road following an accident. It is estimated that, at some time, one in six motorists have bought a "cut and shunt" - two cars welded together and sold as one.

"We are seeing a lot more cloning these days," says Phil Swift, of Claims Management and Adjusting, which specialises in ve- hicle theft investigations. "There's a lot of money to be made by crooks. About five years ago around 500,000 cars a year were stolen. The police did a cracking job and we got about 70 per cent back which meant about 150,000 cars were never seen again.

"Now the figure of stolen vehicles is down to about 360,000 a year but police are recovering less than 50 per cent of them. We are still losing about 180,000 a year, ones which we never see again. Car security has improved so less are being stolen but if we are getting fewer back, where are they all going? Breaking for parts accounts for some and a few are possibly exported so the vast number are probably being cloned."

It is estimated by police that there are already thousands of cloned cars on Britain's roads. However, because the only way of confirming the identity of each one is to compare the licence plate with the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the chassis - which the more sophisticated crooks will also attempt to forge - the scam is almost impossible to police.

According to Roger Powell, General Manager of My Car Check, one of the UK's leading vehicle-data agencies, there is not a day goes by without innocent people being duped. "Often people pay thousands for a new car only to find it has been stolen and given a false identity," says Powell, who recently heard of a car which appeared to have been cloned at least 14 times. "The only way to check is to make sure the registration-plate matches the Vehicle Identification Number on the chassis and elsewhere," he adds.

All UK chassis codes are made up of have 17 letters and numbers and at least the last four are unique to each vehicle. My Car Check is the only company to provide the last four digits of a car's VIN to help buyers check thoroughly.

"If there are less or more than 17 characters, or if there is any suggestion the numbers have been tampered with in any way, people should be immediately suspicious," says Powell, whose company uses data supplied by the DVLA, the police and the Association of British Insurers to confirm the identity and history of vehicles.

The massive growth in internet trading has made the problem worse, as more cars are sold on a national, rather than local, level, making it harder for police to trace a "clone" that has been sold. As a result, organised gangs operating throughout the UK are estimated to be making a fortune from the scams.

"Some buyers find it very hard to resist a luxury car which is offered at two-thirds of its expected value," says Detective Inspector Jim Henderson, head of Strathclyde Police's stolen-car unit.

"We recently heard of a Porsche worth around £70,000 which was sold for £8,000. People are so keen to get a bargain that they leave their brains at home, often agreeing to buy a car from somebody in a hotel car park or some back street somewhere. Sometimes victims take out loans to buy the cars and end up losing everything while the crooks run off with the money to buy drugs or use it to finance other crimes."

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