Car thieves play it by the registration book: Insurance hassles are the penalty for not treating a vehicle's documents with respect, as Ian Gregory reports

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The Independent Online
Keith Haddock would like to forget this year's April Fool's Day. A lawyer who specialises in advising people on their car insurance claims, he found himself being fooled by opportunistic car thieves.

'I had recently taxed my car and, like an idiot, left the vehicle registration documents in the glove compartment,' said Mr Haddock, who works for the Legal Protection Group.

On 1 April, his Volkswagen Golf was broken into and the documents stolen. He reported the matter to the police and applied for new documents. Ten days later, while he was away for the weekend, the thieves returned. Using the registration documents, they had had duplicate keys cut. This time they drove off with the car.

Within hours, they were trying to sell the car to Loughborough Car Sales in Brixton, London, whose staff were suspicious because the sellers were asking only pounds 2,800 - well below the book price of pounds 4,000.

But after checking that the car had not been reported as stolen, the garage made out a cheque to 'Keith Haddock', as listed in the registration documents.

On returning to his home, Mr Haddock immediately reported the theft to the police. For weeks he heard nothing, and assumed the car had been broken up for parts. Then, on 5 May, the police said the car had been located. One of their officers had been to Loughborough Car Sales looking for a car for himself. He took a fancy to the VW Golf but, before parting with any money, checked the national computer records and found the car was stolen.

Mr Haddock's problems then started to multiply. His insurers, the Norwich Union, had been about to pay up for his 'stolen' car. Now they refused, arguing that the car was not stolen because Mr Haddock knew exactly where it was - at Loughborough Car Sales. The garage, whose cheque had by now been cashed, understandably claimed that it had bought the car in good faith and therefore owned it. It was only after weeks of haggling that Mr Haddock persuaded the insurers to pay up.

'I could have been saved all this hassle if I had realised how important the registration documents are. Once you have them, it's incredible how easy it is to get keys cut,' he said.

Having paid out on the claim, Norwich Union now owns the Golf. But the vehicle, along with the whole of Loughborough Car Sales, has now proved untraceable.

Insurers often come across cases of garages and individuals who have innocently bought cars that turn out to have been stolen.

'Nobody has a better title to the car than the person it was originally stolen from - that's the law as it stands,' said Alan Gore of Norwich Union.

But insurers who have paid out on the claim from the real owner are willing to discuss selling the vehicle to the hoodwinked buyer. 'Provided they are prepared to speak to us in a reasonable manner, we can usually come to an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. If not, we'll sue,' Mr Gore said.

He has less sympathy for those who buy cars from strangers at 'ridiculously' low prices. 'Then we would say either they have been very naive, or they've gone into a deal where they must have realised that the car did not have the history it was purported to have.

'But whether they've been totally innocent or not, we are entitled to the vehicle,' Mr Gore said.

While having a vehicle's registration documents does not prove ownership, the way they can be used by thieves to have car keys cut has led Keith Haddock to treat them with great respect.

'They should be treated like the deeds of a house - kept in a safe,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)