What's in a VIN?

Decoding Vehicle Identification Numbers puts the brakes on auto theft, cloning and chop shop operations


     Changing the identity of a vehicle is complicated — it involves altering all VIN locations on that auto. These modifications are usually done in vehicle "cloning" operations where a salvage vehicle is recovered and a VIN from an operational automobile is substituted for the original. This is commonly done with high-end vehicles, such as Lexus or Cadillac SUVs.

     When these crimes are discovered it is often due to the way the VINs have been changed. The criminal element may use the wrong rosette or incorrect plate type or forget to change all the numbers found on the vehicle.

Forensically speaking

     Let's say detectives confiscate a vehicle and they suspect the VIN has been tampered with. Generally when examining a vehicle for forensic proposes, the vehicle is divided into three sections: the engine compartment, the passenger area and the trunk. The forensic inquisition proceeds in that order unless murder or suicide is involved in the investigation. And there are other simple steps to take in the investigation.

     (1) Photograph the dash-mounted VIN and label accordingly.

     (2) Photograph all concealed VIN stamps or labels that can be reached without damaging them.

     (3) Coat accessible areas, without damaging the VIN stamps, with fingerprint powder and transfer the images to a fingerprint card and label accordingly. (In cases where officials are trying to view unreadable VINs on the frame, use brake cleaning fluid to clean the area only after photographs and impressions of the original state have been taken.)

     (4) Fingerprint all areas where tampering is suspected. Use a scale indicator and have some way of identifying the photographer. As usual, document the location from which the pictures and other information are located.

     The average motorist may submit a vehicle VIN to the DMV or the insurance company and forget about it. Law enforcement officials lack that luxury. To detect stolen vehicles, uncover chop shops or identify cloning operations, officers need to know what's in a VIN and where it can be found.

     Editor's Note: For online charts decoding VINs, see www.autocheck.com/?siteID=0 or www.greatoldcars.com/decoding.htm.

     Kathy Steck-Flynn teaches seminars in recognition of forensic evidence and forensic entomology for various groups, and is staff writer for "Crime Watch Canada," for which she writes the Forensic Science section. Steck-Flynn can be reached at kflynn@shaw.ca.

Decoding a sample VIN

Sample VIN: 1G1FP22PXS2100001

What these numbers mean:
1 = Country it was produced (United States)
G= Manufacturer (General Motors)
1= Make (Chevrolet)
F = Carline Code (F-Body)
P = Carline Series (Camaro)
2 = Body Type (2-door, coupe, hatchback)
2 = Restraint Systems (Manual belts [drive+pass inflatable])
P = Engine Code (5.7L V8)
X = Check Digit (most likely X)
S = Model Year (1995)
2 = Assembly Plant (St. Therese)
100001 = Production Sequence

     — Courtesy of www.thebiglot.com

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