Motor Industry News
Attack of the clones and how to tell if you are driving one! A surge in car cloning - where criminals copy number plates - is cheating second-hand buyers and landing law-abiding drivers with fines for offences they did not commit.
When Mike McLellan, a businessman from Manchester, pulled up in a residential cul-de-sac in the city, he couldn’t help noticing the silver Vauxhall Astra alongside his looked similar. Nothing unusual in that, it’s one of the bestselling vehicles in Britain and silver is one of the most popular colours.
But his interest turned to astonishment when he saw the number plate was identical. For a second, McLellan, 58, thought he was seeing double. After several confused double takes, he realised he had become a victim of car cloning, the vehicle equivalent of identity theft.
He called the police, expecting them to be shocked at his discovery. Their response? "It happens all the time."
There are up to 100,000 cloned cars on British roads - 10 times previous estimates - according to police officers on a national working group set up to tackle the problem. Cloners use plates stolen from an identical model or copy them. The cloned car will then pass a superficial police check that matches the number plate with vehicle type and colour.
Armed with their duplicate plates, criminals can dodge speeding fines, drive away from petrol forecourts knowing they can’t be traced using CCTV images, escape congestion charges and parking fines, and hide their true identity from police number plate recognition cameras.
And the offences aren't all traffic-related. John Cahill, a former Rover employee from Birmingham, realised his car's identity had been stolen only when he woke up one morning to find armed police surrounding his house believing he had been involved in an armed robbery. It took five hours in a police station interview room before he was able to convince them that both he and his car had alibis.
Most drivers only realise their car number plate has been copied when they receive fines accompanied by photographic evidence of a vehicle that looks like theirs, but on a road they've never driven on.
Transport for London, which operates the city's congestion charge, says a new case of cloning comes to light every day, as people call to complain about receiving charges for visits to the capital they never made. Drivers then face a battle to prove their innocence.
Hugh Evans, 33, a pensions manager, was bemused to receive two £60 parking fines from Ealing council in west London earlier this year because his car had never been further than his work car park near Warrington, Cheshire, on the days in question.
Having e-mailed photos of his 2006 Honda Civic to the authorities, proving it was slightly different to the one that had committed the offence, he has since been let off the fines but a third £100 fine, from Redbridge council in east London, is still outstanding. "When the third ticket arrived I was really concerned it might escalate into something that could create a lot of trouble for me," said Evans. "And nobody was able to help - the councils weren't interested in investigating it further. The police gave me a crime number but said there wasn’t much they could do."
The onus is on the car owner to convince the authorities that they were not, for example, where a traffic camera suggests they were.
It is at the very least a time-consuming business, involving many letters and telephone calls. Sometimes the only way to assert your innocence is to throw yourself at the mercy of a magistrate who may or may not be sympathetic.
Inevitably there will be drivers who capitalise on the growth of cloning to falsely claim they were victims of the crime. Others are muddying the waters by tampering with plates to evade the rising number of traffic cameras and hikes in congestion charging.
One motorist admitted to changing the C on his number plate to an O after he was fined by three different types of camera - speed, bus lane and red-light camera (designed to catch drivers who cross traffic lights on red) - on three successive days. "It’s fighting fire with fire," he said. "You face daily extortion by people who erect these cameras so what else are you supposed to do?"
Police say a common ploy is for motorists to use black electrical tape to change an F to an E to avoid fines.
In Bedfordshire, Luigi Guerriero, a police constable on the national car cloning working group, said the owner of one vehicle was prosecuted for sticking rabbit droppings on his number plate to change the letters. Clearly his imaginative use of organic waste didn’t impress the traffic officers who stopped him after a radio check revealed the plate didn’t match the car.
Meanwhile, cloning proper is escalating at an alarming rate despite government attempts to tackle the problem.
Earlier this year, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) gained new powers to raid premises where it suspects illegal number plates are being made. Registered plate suppliers in England and Wales are required to inspect a car owner’s personal identification and vehicle documents before selling new plates.
But with fewer means of obtaining plates through legal channels, criminals are increasingly turning to stealing number plates from similar vehicles, with the result that there were an estimated 40,000 such thefts in England and Wales last year - up by 25% from 2005.
That number is thought to be only a fraction of the true extent of the crime because many owners do not bother to report the theft. The Department for Transport last year showed off a new type of number plate that disintegrated on removal.
Stephen Ladyman, then transport minister and now vice-chairman of the Labour party, said: "These new anti-theft plates will help to reduce the number of innocent drivers who receive fines for something they did not do."
However, the plates cost £30-£40 a pair, about twice the cost of traditional number plates and, more than a year on, many large retailers such as Halfords still don’t stock them.
There’s another dimension to the cloning scam: the growing second-hand market in stolen cars that not only have fake number plates but fake documents as well. With forged papers, a car can easily be sold without a vehicle provenance check revealing it as stolen. The buyer has no idea that he or she does not legally own the car and, if it is recovered by the police, has no way of getting their money back.
And it can be surprisingly easy to produce fake documents. Earlier this year 46,000 blank DVLA vehicle registration certificates 'went missing' on their way to a shredding facility in Durham. The V5C forms had been rejected for having a pink rather than mauve background on a tear-off section at the bottom. It was an error only an expert eye would notice, and in the hands of criminals the blank forms could be used to forge the necessary documentation and give a new identity to thousands of stolen vehicles.
The police have since seized 250 of the reject V5C certificates accompanying at least 110 stolen cars, valued at more than £1m. Investigations have failed to identify a culprit and police are warning motorists to look out for the erroneous certificates.
The availability of fake paperwork fuels the demand for stolen vehicles, and it’s not only property that's at risk. Improvements in vehicle security have paradoxically left owners more vulnerable.
Determined thieves who can't beat door locks or immobilisers will revert to car-jacking or robbery, sometimes at knife or gunpoint. Some cloners are so organised they employ 'Fagins' - gang leaders who pay children to scout out specific makes, models and colours of cars, parked on quiet leafy streets. The children report back with number plate details to match the make and model of a car already stolen to order.
The government seems unwilling to adopt the more aggressive measures demanded by police and other enforcement authorities, including making the tamper-proof number plates mandatory and the establishment of one state agency overseeing the issue of all plates.
"There is only one agency that issues passports, and that’s the passport office. There’s only one agency that issues currency, and that’s the Bank of England," says Superintendent John Wake of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ vehicle crime intelligence unit. "So why are there 40,000 licensed number plate suppliers?"
It costs only £40 to register as a number plate supplier. But police say the bigger problem is now with the internet suppliers that will run off 'road legal' or 'legal standard' front and rear number plates without asking to see evidence of ownership, and post them to you for less than £15. The website's small print warns that these show plates should not be used on public roads but it’s no deterrent.
To prove how easy it is, Robert Goodwill, the Conservative shadow roads minister, bought his own copies of the prime ministerial Jaguar plates after jotting down the numbers as Gordon Brown’s cavalcade swept past Parliament Square. All he had needed, he said, was Google and a credit card.
Law-abiding motorists are meanwhile increasingly vulnerable. When Betty White, 73, received a fine for flooring her Volkswagen Golf 1.6L through a north London intersection her first reaction was to laugh. A camera had apparently clocked her at 73mph in a 50mph zone when on the day in question, she said, she was at home in Kent, looking after her six-year-old granddaughter.
"My family find it quite amusing because I’m rather a slow driver," she says. "I’m afraid I’m a bit of a granny driver." But she soon stopped smiling when two Metropolitan police officers turned up on her doorstep to question her and her husband about whether their car's registration was authentic.
Her husband Douglas remains angry. "The police were just doing their job," he said. "But the DVLA should get their own house in order before trying to get more money out of people like us. There are at least two cars with the same registration - how many more are out there?"
How to beat the criminals
What is it? It's like identity theft. Criminals find an exact match of a car they have stolen, copy the number plate of the legitimate vehicle and fit it to the stolen one.
How widespread is it? Recent estimates suggest there may be up to 100,000 cloned cars in Britain.
Am I at risk? If you have received fines or charges for which you are not responsible, it's possible your vehicle has been cloned.
What to do? Return any fine notices or correspondence to the issuing authorities, providing any documentary evidence you have to prove your case. Alert the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the police. See the government's guidelines for more.
How do I avoid buying a clone? If you’ve bought a stolen vehicle with cloned number plates, there is little chance of getting your money back. When buying a second-hand car, check the number plate corresponds with the vehicle. You do this by noting the vehicle identification number (a string of numbers) on a plate on the chassis and asking a service such as mycarcheck.com to check it against DVLA records. The check, costing £4, will show whether your number plate is the right one for the chassis number.
Jonathan Milne, Sunday Times.