KPRC 2 Investigates clone cars, flaw allowing vehicle identity theft

Here's what we know

HOUSTON – Next to your home, your vehicle is probably the most expensive thing you own. What if you discovered someone had stolen your car, but it was still in your driveway? It’s basically vehicle identity theft. KPRC 2 investigator Amy Davis discovered a flaw in the state’s titling system allowing thieves to steal cars and hide them in plain sight on our roadways.

Your car’s VIN is its Social Security number

Hit and runs, criminal activity and toll violators are just a few reasons it’s important that police can track the history of every vehicle on the road.

Your vehicle identification number is like a social security number, unique to your car. Just like your social, thieves are using VINs to steal your vehicle’s identity.

To explain how criminals perpetrate this crime, we interviewed Kenneth Davis. He paid in full for his 2015 BMW 535 when he bought it in 2020. He obtained the title for the vehicle. In 2021, he decided to trade it in at a local dealership for another vehicle. That is when he learned someone else had gotten a bonded title on his BMW, using the VIN. The vehicle was registered to Davis and someone else who lived in Spring.

Kenneth Davis showed investigator Amy Davis proof that he had legal title to his 2015 BMW when someone else was able to obtain a bonded title on it. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“I was completely floored,” Davis told Amy Davis, recounting what the employees at the dealership told him.“They were like, ‘Well, the title that you have has your name on it, but however, when we pull it to look into the system, the car’s actually registered to someone else.’”

Davis couldn’t sell his car because on paper, it didn’t belong to him.

It was registered to an address in Spring. When Houston police auto theft investigators drove to the address, they found another black 2015 BMW 535 in the driveway. It’s the same make, model and color as Davis’ with license plates tied to his vehicle identification number. The car was a clone.

“You wouldn’t know. You would not,” Davis explained. “I would probably walk to the wrong car thinking it was my car because they’re identical.”

Why would thieves steal your VIN?

I know what you’re thinking. Why? Why would the owner of one car get it registered using the VIN of another car?

Sergeant Tracy Hicks with HPD’s Auto Theft Task Force answered that question.

“About 100% of the time, that car’s actually a stolen car,” he said.

Hicks confirmed the BMW clone of Kenneth’s car was stolen from a Sharpstown area repair shop.

Even crooks know they’re on borrowed time driving around in a stolen vehicle. But if they get a license plate that goes back to a car with no record, they can drive the stolen car unnoticed. Heck, they can even sell it.

“If there were any legal ramifications, if they got in an accident or whatever, it would come back to me and not that person,” explained Davis.

How is it happening?

Joel Olvera owns Surety Bonds, a title bonding business. He understands the fraud and said he sees it daily. He said he sees one to three cars every day where drivers come into his office trying to get a bonded title for stolen vehicles.

Bonded title business advertising across from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“It is concerning. It is surprising. And I would say it is dangerous as well,” Olvera told Davis.

Car owners can legitimately apply for a bonded title when they’ve lost the original.

“Most of the stories we hear are, ‘My grandfather gave me this car. He can’t find the title. A family member passed away and they had it and it was given to me,’” said Sgt. Hicks.

Under those circumstances, state law requires that law enforcement officers verify the VIN before a bonded title can be issued.

HPD Auto Theft Task Force officers do VIN verifications every Monday morning at 1400 Dart. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

HPD does VIN verifications at 1400 Dart every Monday morning. Officers check out each vehicle.

“We personally inspect that car for the VIN number, verify that, that VIN belongs on that car, and then sign the paperwork,” Hicks explained.

Applicants then take this document back to the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for the bonded title.

But KPRC 2 Investigates discovered that the state law doesn’t require this sort of VIN inspection for every car.

The DMV processed and approved both the title it issued to Kenneth Davis and the bonded title issued to another driver using the VIN of Kenneth's car. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

A DMV spokesperson told us by email, in Davis’ case, “There was a record for this vehicle, so the applicant was not required to have the vehicle inspected by law enforcement.”

The bonded title application asks the applicant:

  • “Are you in legal possession of the vehicle?”
  • “Are you in legal control of the vehicle?”

The person applying using Davis’ VIN checked “yes” for both questions. Clearly, it was not true.

“So, who’s going out to the parking lot to make sure that the person applying for the bond has that vehicle?” Davis asked Olvera.

“No one,” Olvera answered.

“Nobody’s checking that?” Amy followed up.

“Nobody at all,” said Olvera.

The DMV told KPRC 2 investigates “The applicant certified to being in possession and legal control of the vehicle.”

“They could be telling the truth. They could be lying. And they just rely on a simple answer on a simple question,” said Olvera.

“Those VIN numbers can be transferred to almost any title on any car and the owner of the actual car may not even know they’re being duplicated,” said an incredulous Davis.

Are a lot of people getting bonded titles in Texas?

The DMV couldn’t tell us how many bonded titles it has issued without law enforcement inspecting the vehicles, but they say the state-issued 65,677 bonded titles last year. That was more than 23,000 than they issued the year before. The state issued 42,227 bonded titles in 2020.

Hicks says if two titles are issued for the same VIN, the DMV usually catches it.

“What normally happens is, both of those people who have that number get a letter saying, ‘Hey, your title.. and thus, license plates, are both invalid. You both need to go to your local DMV, and find out what the deal is.’ And they end up at your local police department,” explained Hicks.

Davis says he was never notified, and the DMV couldn’t tell us who, if anyone, it notified of the double titles on the same car.

“If you make a mistake, own up to it. And fix it,” said Davis, speaking to the DMV. “And don’t put the citizens through this kind of stuff when it’s not their fault.”

It took about three months, but Davis finally got the mess straightened out. The stolen clone vehicle was confiscated. There are multiple victims of these crimes. The thief sold the cloned car on Offer Up to a woman who didn’t know it was stolen. She is now out the money she paid for the car too. Police say the best way to prevent this from happening is to require a vehicle inspection for every single vehicle that needs a new title.

Wednesday morning on KPRC 2 News, we will show you how to make sure the used car you’re buying isn’t stolen.

About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.