It's akin to identity theft but for vehicles.
Car cloning scams are one of the UK’s fastest-rising crimes but it is barely acknowledged.
One victim is Bouchaib Moussaid, whose £8,000 Kia Sportage was set to be sold at auction by bailiffs. He and his friends have spent the last few weeks trying to stop the sale.
Unbeknown to him, someone had copied his car’s registration plates and had driven in London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) 12 times, resulting in him being sent a series of penalty fines.
Despite Bouchaib repeatedly telling Transport for London (TfL) that he was not responsible, agents working for TfL seized his car in January 2024.
Car cloning can be a nightmare to resolve as unpaid speeding, parking and other fines start appearing.
What is Car Cloning?
Also known as vehicle identity theft, car cloning occurs when a car is equipped with a duplicated or stolen number plate to mimic another vehicle of the same make, model and colour.
It’s akin to identity theft but for vehicles.
This practice implicates the owner of the car with a legitimate license plate for any crimes or offences committed using the cloned vehicle, obscuring the true identity of the perpetrator.
Perpetrators may exploit cloned cars to evade speeding fines and parking violations.
They might also utilise fake plates to sell stolen vehicles to unsuspecting buyers. More alarmingly, cloned cars could be used in more serious criminal activities, such as bank robberies.
How does it Work?
To clone a car, criminals procure new, unlawfully acquired number plates that mirror the registered number plate of a vehicle identical in make, model and colour to the one they have stolen or obtained illegally.
This results in two vehicles on the road sharing the same registration number: the original, lawfully registered car and the cloned car.
In cases where a cloned car is implicated in a crime or the driver commits a traffic offence, authorities will trace the address of the legally registered owner of the cloned car, rather than the actual perpetrator.
When you register ownership of a new number plate, you’ll go to a Registered Number Plate Supplier (RNPS) and show the vehicle’s V5C registration certificate and ID to prove that you’re the owner of the car.
Criminals can get around this by:
- Buying fake plates that mimic a real registration plate.
- Going through unscrupulous online dealers who allow them to buy a real plate without giving the necessary evidence of ownership.
- Physically stealing a registered licence plate from another vehicle. If you happen upon a vehicle with number plates missing, it’s likely this vehicle has been selected by criminals for cloning.
Sophisticated criminals can also take other steps to obscure the true identity of their vehicle, including making fraudulent registration documents, such as the car’s V5C logbook.
They could also change the vehicle’s identification number (VIN) by replacing parts of the car.
Also known as the chassis number, this unique 17-digit number can be found on the frame of the vehicle and is like the vehicle’s fingerprint.
What is to Blame?
Motoring experts said the recent increase in the cost of car ownership is partially to blame.
Drivers facing £2,000-a-year car insurance costs and £12.50 a day to drive in London’s ULEZ are choosing to clone another owner’s number plates.
Usually, the same vehicle model and colour are chosen.
Once the plates are attached, motorists can drive around as an apparently legitimate driver.
Bouchaib has never driven his car in London, so was confused when ULEZ penalties started being sent to him.
Only when he looked at the grainy black and white images of “his” car being driven in the zone did he realise that it wasn’t his vehicle.
The car did not have the Eco badge that his had, the number plates looked different and there were other small bodywork differences.
At the time of the alleged offences, Bouchaib’s car was registered by the DVLA as being off the road.
His sister-in-law Lauren Hine said:
“We have provided a witness statement from his neighbour that it couldn’t be him and shown TfL that his attended care worker shifts in St Albans coincided with the time and date of the offences.
“We have provided evidence that the car was declared off the road when the offences were committed, and shown the physical differences between the vehicles.
“Herts and Met police forces are aware his car was cloned and are searching for the culprit using the camera system, but TfL just won’t listen and are selling his car.
“How can this ludicrous situation even happen?”
Bouchaib was eventually reunited with his car and the fines have been dropped.
A TfL spokesperson said: “We are sorry that Mr Moussaid has been a victim of vehicle cloning and apologise for any distress the handling of his case has caused him and his family.
“Although the evidence which confirmed the vehicle wasn’t registered to him was submitted after the statutory deadline, we should have cancelled all TfL PCNs related to the cloned number plate and stopped the enforcement process – which has now happened.
“We have also returned Mr Moussaid’s vehicle to him.”
Bouchaib is one of many people in the UK who has fallen victim to car cloning.
Another incident involved an 88-year-old woman.
Her insurance renewal increased to £1,259 and was told it was because her Ford Fiesta had been involved in an accident on the M25.
She pointed out that she had not driven on the M25 for over 10 years, had either been at church or at home at the time and that she had reported that her car had been cloned.
However, her insurer Zurich initially refused to take the claim off her file.
Paul Barker, managing director of Carwow, admitted that the number of cloned cars in the UK is “unfortunately increasing”.
“It is becoming a real worry for those caught up in it and can have severe consequences for both buyers and legitimate vehicle owners.”
“For buyers, there is the risk of the financial loss and legal complications that come with inadvertently purchasing a cloned car (which may be stolen) and potentially subject to repossession.”
According to TfL data, more than 12,762 ULEZ charges were cancelled due to car cloning in 2022.
This was an increase from 2,779 in 2021 and 1,298 in 2020. But because the zone was expanded in October 2021, the numbers are not comparable.
Mr Barker explained that if motorists discover their car has been cloned, it is important to act quickly and tell the police.
He said: “Not only will it save you having to appeal against any future tickets, but it will hopefully help the police snare the criminals, as a cloned vehicle will be flagged on nationwide [ANPR] cameras as one to look out for.
“We would also encourage clone victims to collect as much evidence as possible, digital or testimony, about your whereabouts, to support appeals against unfortunate motoring fines or traffic violations that your car’s doppelganger has accrued.”
AA President Edmund King says the rise in camera enforcement means that for those wanting to stay outside the law, cloning a car is the “easiest option”.
He said: “One solution we advocate is to have more traffic police or ‘cops in cars and on cycles’ on the streets, as often they are able to spot the ringers.
“Evidence from the Home Office suggests the most serious motoring offenders are much more likely to be involved in other crimes.”