PHOENIX (3 On Your Side) -- During the pandemic, demand for used cars has surged, but if car shoppers aren't careful, criminals could take them a ride with a counterfeit car.

"When you're buying a car, you’re also buying its ID," said James Garnand of NARPRO, the Neighborhood of Auto Repair Professionals.

The ID is the vehicle identification number, or VIN. Garnand showed 3 On Your Side an example of a vehicle with a VIN mismatch that appeared during an emissions check.

"The computer in the vehicle doesn’t match the vehicle, but the vehicle doesn’t show any signs of it being stolen or anything," Garnand said. "Most likely what happened is somebody replaced the computer in the car and didn’t reprogram it."

"It's not worthless. It’s worth less," he added. "If things don’t match up, it doesn’t have the value that everything is consistent."

While there may be legitimate reasons for some VIN issues, criminals also create cloned or counterfeit VINs to get rid of stolen vehicles, according to Rusty Russell, the director of operations for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"If you counterfeit the VIN and apply it to say a stolen vehicle, now it looks like a legitimate, true vehicle, so you can counterfeit a VIN, and then you can potentially resell the vehicle," Russell told 3 On Your Side.

Nationwide, about 800,000 vehicles are stolen every year, according to NICB. It's not clear how many are given fake identification numbers and resold.

"It's hard to give you statistics on what percentage of vehicles are cloned or counterfeited because we only know the ones that we recover," Russell said.

Consumers who are shopping for used cars should watch for tell-tale signs that a VIN has been manipulated.

"The VIN in the windshield and the VIN on the door, those are in places that don’t generally get cleaned," Garnand said. "There’s no easy way to clean them, so if you notice the area around it is dirty but that’s a nice clean, new plate, that should make you start to suspect something is up."

Car shoppers should also get a vehicle history report.

"Do you see when the car was manufactured, where the car was first titled and registered, or did the vehicle just suddenly appear out of nowhere," Russell cautioned.

For example, consumers who have their eye on a car that’s eight years old, should make sure it has eight years’ worth of history and maintenance. If it doesn’t, it may be a counterfeit vehicle.

Incorrect spelling on paperwork, including the vehicle title, is another red flag to investigate before making a deal.


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