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A Numbers Game

Decoding VINs

October 01, 2006  |  by Dan Pasquale - Also by this author

Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) are a very useful tool in the hands of an officer with a little knowledge. Knowing your way around a VIN can mean the difference between stumbling upon a person with a lot of cars on their property and finding a chop shop. It can also allow you to find an occupied stolen vehicle on a routine traffic stop. Knowing where to look for VINs and what to look for in them are the toughest parts of any VIN investigation. This article will help you through a few simple ways to use VINs in your everyday duties.

Public VIN Plate

The first place to look for a VIN is the public VIN plate. This is the thin metal plate mounted on the driver's side of the dashboard and clearly visible from the front of the vehicle. Most states have laws that prevent tampering or even covering the public VIN. If you see the number covered, be sure to check it well. These VINs are riveted to the dashboard by the manufacturer, and should be flat and flush with the dash. If they are bowed or bent in any way, they have probably been tampered with. No vehicle manufacturers use nails or glue to mount them; they are required to use rivets. Only a select number of imports before 1980 used screws. Since 1981, all manufacturers have been required to use a 17-digit VIN. Prior to that, the VINs range considerably in length.

When checking the VIN, verify the last six numbers. These are the sequential production numbers, meaning they are unique to that vehicle only. Most car thieves have figured out that officers usually only verify the final four numbers of a VIN. In checking the last six, you are able to overcome this problem. Also, the number or letter in the 10th position (which is part of the final six numbers) represents the vehicle's model year. Check a copy of the NICB vehicle identification manual for a listing of these year designators (this is explained later in this article). Using them is an easy way to see if the VIN belongs to that vehicle, or if it was added to disguise a stolen vehicle.

Secondary VINs

Now we move on to the secondary VINs. These are the numbers manufacturers apply to make it easier for us to double-check the public VIN while in the field. Let's start with a couple of secondary locations that are easily accessible for any patrol officer on a vehicle stop. There are VINs elsewhere, but unless you have a pair of coveralls handy, you'll be getting very dirty and dropping your officer safety to dangerous levels if you choose to search for them. The ones described below are a good place to start to verify the identity of the car or truck you are looking at.

The most obvious secondary VIN is usually posted on a label attached to the inside of the driver's doorframe. This sticker will normally be white and have more information on it, such as the year and make of the vehicle. The sticker should have the complete 17-digit VIN written on it. If this sticker has been altered at all, look for another number. The alterations to this sticker range from a simple black marker to a whole new label being printed and applied. Check this number against the public VIN and see if they match.

Another good place to look for a secondary VIN is on the vehicle's firewall. The firewall is the wall separating the engine from the front seats. Just open the hood and you can clearly see it. The VIN should be stamped into the firewall metal, normally right in the center. Check first to see that the firewall looks the same around where the number is etched. Many times, car thieves will cut out a portion of firewall from a salvaged vehicle and weld it into place around the old VIN, replacing it with the salvaged vehicle's identity. The number should not be scratched or mutilated in any way. It should also be the entire 17-digit VIN. Not all vehicles have the VIN at this location, but most do.

NHTSA Stickers

A final easy place to look for the VIN is very small, but very prevalent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) labels many newer vehicles with small stickers known as "NHTSA stickers." These labels are usually about three inches in length and very thin. They contain the entire 17-digit VIN and are placed on all of the major components of the vehicle, including inside the engine compartment, on door frames and even on the inside of many bumpers (this makes it easy to identify certain hit and run suspects that leave their bumper, even without the plate attached!). If you see areas in which a sticker appeared to have been removed, verify that vehicle well. These stickers leave both a visible and invisible footprint when removed. The invisible footprint can be seen with a UV light, even if painted over.

VINs were made and regulated to aid police in identifying vehicles. With a little education, we can use them to our advantage everyday. For more information or for a free copy of their vehicle identification manual, contact your local National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) office. Another good reference for Product Identification Numbers (PINs) which are used to identify construction equipment is the National Equipment Register (NER). The organization also publishes a very useful field guide for law enforcement. NER can be reached at 1-866-FIND PIN. Good luck and happy hunting!


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