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How To Check if a Car Is Stolen for Free

Porsche sports car

In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation‘s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) revealed a striking statistic: car thefts in the United States occurred at a rate of 268.2 cases per 100,000 people.

This staggering figure equates to nearly a million vehicles stolen across the country in a year.

California was the state with the highest number of thefts, followed by Texas and Florida. These are only reported thefts, so the actual number is likely higher.

Cars are often stolen with the intention of reselling them. In the event that you unknowingly purchase a stolen vehicle, the title and ownership contract will be deemed void. Consequently, the car will be seized and returned to the rightful owner or reclaimed by the original insurance company.

It pays to know how to verify if a car is stolen and what to do if you find one.

Avoiding a Stolen Sale Before It Happens

Verifying the seller’s address is a clincher for a safe and legal automotive transaction. Whether buying from a dealer or a private party, be sure that the title is physically present and that the name on the title matches the seller. 

Car VIN number
Vehicle Identification Number.

Check the car’s service history, and if it’s spotty or unaccounted for, reconsider the deal. Do not let the seller avoid providing you with their address. Buying from a reputable dealer will help ensure that these matters are in order.

Get the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which serves as its unique identifier. The Motor Vehicle Division (MVD or DMV) will also check this during the registration, but by then, the sale has already occurred.

If the car is reported as stolen, then it will be confiscated, and the buyer will have to make a police report on the sale.

Checking the Vehicle Identification Number in Person

Check the physical car for its VIN. A stolen car may show evidence of tampering with its VIN. 

On the car, the VIN can be found in the driver’s side door or the jamb of the door, usually as a sticker or on the dashboard as an engraving, visible when viewed from outside the windshield.

Car VIN inspection
Auto mechanic checking the digital vehicle identification number of a car.

It may also appear under the hood, in the rear wheel well, in the front of the frame by the washer fluid, in front of the engine block, and underneath the spare tire.

The VIN will be present on the vehicle title, the insurance card, a copy of the insurance policy, and the current vehicle registration. Ensure that, at the very least, you have seen the title document. 

It is possible that the title document is forged or its signature is forged. There is little a buyer can do to spot a forgery in the sale documents other than to have the seller accompany you to the DMV to verify the transaction.

Car title documents
The VIN number is recorded on the car’s title documents.

You can reach out to the car’s insurance company to verify any instances of cloning or potential tampering with the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). This may involve checking if the original VIN has been replaced with that of another vehicle, which could indicate fraudulent activity.

The DMV can perform a title search, and they will tell you if the car has ever been declared as salvaged or a total loss. However, they will usually charge you for this.

Checking the VIN Online

You can run the VIN through the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) VINCheck database online. 

This particular check on the car will be for a history of theft claims or if it has been reported as salvage. 

Car theft
VINCheck is an online resource for checking if a car has been reported stolen.

If you wish to also find the motor vehicle’s full-service record, a web search for checking the VIN will turn up free tools with websites such as CARFAX and several others. 

These tools can also help you know whether you’re getting a good deal for the car in use or by price.


The VIN is present as a barcode on all motor vehicles manufactured for United States sale after 1981. 

A variety of free VIN scanning apps are available for your cellphone that can be used to scan the barcode and verify its manufacture, ownership, and service record or even enable future tracking by GPS if one is available in the car. 

GPS app
VIN scanning apps can be used to enable GPS tracking.

These apps may be further paired with web apps to use on a computer or simply in a browser on your device.

How To Use the VIN

The VIN is the car’s unique identifier and contains information you can use immediately to verify your car’s authenticity with your eyes alone. 

The first character tells where the car was made and is a number from one through five for cars made in North America or a letter associated with its country of origin that is not O, I, or Q. 

The second character is the manufacturer’s World Manufacturer Identifier or WMI code for the company that made the car. The third character is a division category for the type of car the manufacturer makes.

VIN number
Seized car plates with altered vehicle identification numbers.

The next four characters codify the car’s brand, body type, engine, model, and series. The ninth character is a security check generated through a mathematical formula by the United States Department of Transportation (USDoT) and verifies the car for sale. 

A false VIN may have an incorrect security check digit, and while it can be checked by hand, any form of VIN checker will be able to do it for you. Digits ten and eleven tell the model year plant of manufacture, respectively, and the remaining digits are the car’s serial number.

Meaning of Different Digits in a VIN:

1Country of Origin or Final Assembly1: USA
2ManufacturerF: Ford
3Vehicle Type and Manufacturing DivisionX: Passenger Car (Ford)
4-8Vehicle Attributes (Body style, engine type, model, series, etc.)F52: Ford Focus, 4-Door Sedan
9Check Digit (Ensures the VIN is accurate, calculated from other digits)6
10Model YearM: 2021
11Assembly Plant (Where the vehicle was manufactured)A: Atlanta, Georgia
12-17Production Sequence Number (Unique identifier for each vehicle produced)123456

Avoiding Legal Headaches

Car theft in the metropolitan United States is high. To avoid major headaches, a potential buyer must know how to spot a stolen car beforehand by researching the vehicle’s history. 

parking space
Researching a vehicle’s history can save a potential buyer a wealth of trouble.

If you buy from an individual and not an authorized dealer, verify the car’s VIN on the physical car title document and run a free VIN check through online services such as VINCheck and service history reports. 

If you come across a stolen car or are suspicious of fraudulent activity, carefully extricate yourself from the deal and contact the NICB online or by phone.

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