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Consummate Consumer

Car Thieves: Do They Have Your Number?

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page C10

A spam making the rounds warns that thieves have come up with this easy way to steal your car: "The car thieves peer through the windshield of your car or truck, write down the VIN from the label on the dash, go to the local car dealership and request a duplicate key based on the VIN."

In standard Internet hoax style, the spam's anonymous writer claims he didn't believe the alert himself until he called a local dealer and pretended he had lost his keys. "They told me to just bring in the VIN and they would cut me one on the spot," the spam says.

The car thief then returns to the car with the key and "doesn't have to break in, do any damage to the vehicle, or draw attention to himself," the spam says. "All he has to do is walk up to your car, insert the key and off he goes to a local chop shop. . . . It is that easy."

So is the solution the spam recommends: Just cover the metal plate on the dash that contains the VIN, or vehicle identification number, with electrical tape or a 3-by-5 card.

Is this a genuine consumer alert? Or just another forward-to-everyone-you-know Internet rumor?

David Emery, an urban legends expert at About.com, says the VIN car-theft scenario actually happens, but the spam overstates the risk.

"As far as I can tell," he says, "cars simply aren't stolen this way all that often."

Snopes.com, the venerable rumor debunker, mentions a 2002 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about the breakup of a multistate car-theft ring that used a similar scheme. But as of last week, Snopes.com was rating the VIN spam fourth among its top 25 "hottest" urban legends.

The warning apparently dates back about two years and has all the makings for a long shelf life.

"It's urgent, it's scary and it's impactful because it warns about a type of crime most people have never heard of," Emery says.

But a couple of factors undermine the VIN scheme: Most car dealerships require valid identification, such as a registration or car title, to make a duplicate key from a VIN. And car thieves, who steal 1.2 million cars in this country annually, don't want the hassle of casing cars and finding dealerships where the parts department is lax on checking identification. Most thieves would just as soon jimmy the lock and hot-wire the ride.

Dick Ashton of the vehicle theft committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police says car theft tends to be a crime of opportunity. "The majority of vehicle thefts are accomplished by persons immediately able to start a particular type of vehicle or by persons who locate a vehicle with its keys in the ignition (especially on cold mornings) or otherwise readily available," he says.

Jack Grant, an IACP highway safety policies expert, says the spam's recommendation to cover the VIN plate isn't necessarily a good idea. "In cases where a police officer needs to be able to read the VIN, the officer may have to break into the vehicle if the owner can't be located."

Grant says the VIN warning also diverts attention from more helpful methods of foiling car thieves that are typically suggested by police departments and insurance companies. "Always lock your vehicle and park in secure, well-lit locations," he says. "Use of anti-theft devices -- such as alarms, tracking devices or devices that prevent the use of the steering wheel, accelerator or brakes -- are effective."

Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.comor write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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