When trying to sell a car, it’s common practice to share your vehicle identification number (or VIN) with potential buyers. Doing so helps them confirm certain information about the vehicle, but are there times when sharing your VIN poses a risk?
The biggest reason not to give out VIN to strangers is that the information can be used to violate your privacy. While sharing your VIN with possible buyers or dealers is safe, it’s not something you should make public to a broader audience.
This piece will explore just what info your VIN can reveal, when it’s safe for you to share it, and how criminals can abuse it in some circumstances. Let’s dive in.
The Purpose of a VIN
VINs are a precise way to identify a vehicle. The number is unique to each car, not unlike a Social Security Number is to people.
VINs are a string of letters and numbers. Their position in this code relates to a specific piece of information. The Vermont DMV explains that the VIN of any vehicle made after 1981 contains seventeen characters in total.
However, rather than tell you the information you can identify simply by looking at the vehicle, the VIN gives incredible specific data about its make, model, features, manufacturer, and year of construction.
Specifically, a VIN reveals the following:
- The first character links to the country where the car was made. Because so many countries manufacture vehicles, some are identified with the first two characters.
- The second character (or the third, in some cases) identifies the specific manufacturer. They further facilitate the process of determining a fair market value.
- Characters four through eight identify specific features the vehicle was made with. These characters can help determine if it’s been modified or what safety features were onboard in the case of an accident.
- The ninth character is called the check digit. It plays a role in formulas investigators use to verify whether or not a VIN is valid.
- The tenth character is the model year. Again, this helps identify if a vehicle’s physical appearance has been modified somehow and its age.
- The eleventh character identifies which specific factory built the vehicle. At first, this may seem redundant if we already know the manufacturer, but when specific models share common defects, knowing which facility made it is key to solving the issue.
- The remaining characters are a unique serial number assigned to each vehicle. They’re used to differentiate them from others in the same line made at the same time.
For most buyers, the VIN is important to know before a sale because it reveals an in-depth history of the vehicle that they can use to determine its value. Then, once they have the number, they can search for it using the NICB VINCheck or similar tools to find its value.
Law enforcement, mechanics, and insurance companies rely on the whole number to uniquely identify specific vehicles and track their history. Police and insurance agents can also track a VIN to its owner (and their contact information) through the registration records they have on file.
A VIN can also prove the legitimacy of the ownership, as the number must appear consistent across several documents, such as insurance and title. Your car title, for example, always includes your name and VIN together.
Is My VIN Personal Information?
Your VIN isn’t considered personal information because, on its own, it cannot identify you as the owner. It’s only after it’s paired with other information confirming the VIN, like your insurance documents, that someone can trace the number back to you.
VIN can’t be considered private information either, as the serial number is already public. While VIN is not necessarily a public record, with most models, it’s easily viewed by anyone standing just outside of it.
A VIN is printed on the vehicle in at least one place, varying from manufacturer and model. Sometimes it’s an accessible but hidden area, such as under the hood.
It may also be visible on your windshield, beneath your trim, or in another location easily seen from the outside. Manufacturers in different countries have their own preferences.
Having the VIN on the car itself makes it easier for anyone to confirm it should the need arise. It also helps police quickly identify cars and drivers based on their own records.
However, you should only share your VIN when it is necessary for a business transaction or when asked to by law enforcement. If you make it widely available, you could become a victim of VIN cloning.
The Danger of Giving Out Your VIN: VIN Cloning
If a criminal acquires your VIN somehow, they could use it to commit or mask certain crimes. In some cases, this can lead to harsh consequences for the original owner.
In 2021, the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that a car was stolen every thirty-six seconds in the United States. CARFAX estimates that of those cars, only 20% are ever recovered.
Thieves use stolen cars in three ways:
- For personal use, either in their daily lives or to commit future crimes. In the latter case, they hope that the stolen car could mislead investigators into thinking the original owner is the culprit.
- To sell for parts. Valuable components, such as rare metals, are stripped from the vehicle, and the rest gets abandoned, junked, or sold for scrap. Criminals may be aided in this process by unethical mechanics in chop shops.
- To resell entirely on the black market. This is where VIN cloning comes in.
Thieves seek to mask the original VIN because police can use it to identify the original owner based on insurance records. To sell the car with minimal suspicion, they create fake VIN plates using legitimately registered numbers to create the illusion that they are the original owner while they complete a sale.
VIN cloning may not impact the original VIN owner, but it leaves the unsuspecting buyer without any remedy. Once the fake VIN is uncovered (by a mechanic, for example), it has to be reported stolen. The buyer loses the car, even though they did not know about the crime.
How to Protect Yourself
People who want to commit this type of fraud need access to your VIN without you suspecting them.
Most thieves will try to get your VIN through an anonymous or pseudonymous approach to protect their identity. For that reason, you should never share your VIN in the following circumstances:
Over the Phone
When someone is just a voice, they can claim to be anyone. Phone number spoofing technology allows them to provide even more layers to the fraud by falsely displaying that the call is coming from another number, like that of an insurance company.
If someone calls you asking for your VIN, don’t take their word for it. Anyone claiming to be your mechanic or insurance company will allow you to call them back (after cross-referencing their number with those listed on their website). Likewise, if a police officer needs your VIN for any reason, they’ll ask you to come to the station or visit you.
Calling them back confirms that whoever it is isn’t calling from a spoofed number.
If you’re advertising that you want to sell a car and potential buyers call asking for the VIN, insist on meeting them in person. A good thief will avoid a face-to-face meeting at all costs, making up excuses for why they can’t see you. On the other hand, serious buyers will have no problem meeting you to discuss the purchase of the car.
On the Internet
With everything described so far, it should be evident that posting your VIN anywhere online puts you at significant risk for fraud. You’ll have no control over who can see it, and even if you decide to remove it at a later point, it can persist through screen captures and archives and be passed around without your knowledge.
Scammers target people selling online in much the same way they do over the phone. Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace allow anyone to send you messages, posing as buyers. Like a phone call, they risk very little by asking you for the VIN in a private message or email.
However, even if you personally know and trust the person asking for your VIN, you shouldn’t send it. Even if they’re a friend, family member, or co-worker, the information could still be seen by prying eyes.
No email or messaging app has impenetrable security. You never know if a malicious third party has access to your messages, so it’s better not to risk it.
Be Careful When Sharing VIN
A car’s VIN is the key to identifying certain information about the vehicle. Such information gets used by buyers to help determine a fair market value.
There’s minimal risk in sharing your VIN with someone in person. That’s why scammers rely on you sharing it online, allowing them to misuse it.
You can protect yourself from VIN fraud by only sharing it with trusted authorities and, more importantly, always in person.