Double the car trouble

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Car-cloning is a low- or no-contact crime that nevertheless has a huge impact on its victims, reports SAMANTHA CAROLUS

Criminals are evolving and getting smarter. Car owners are overwhelmed with information about payments, and the responsibilities of maintaining  and securing their vehicles and it’s hard to keep up with car crime trends. Vehicle cloning is a well used car theft technique that happens right under the noses of owners and leaves uninformed second-hand car buyers powerless and frustrated.

While the theft of motor vehicles and motorbikes in the Eastern Cape has dropped by 10.4% over the past 10 years, South African Police crime statistics for 2019/20 indicate a 6% (63 cases) increase in car-jackings across the province. No car-jackings are recorded in Makhanda in this period. Carjacking, along with Robbery at residential and non-residential premises respectively are identified by SAPS as Trio Crimes and while Grahamstown Police Station makes it into the Province’s top 10 for shoplifting and burglary, our town has so far been spared the spike in the often violent car-jackings that our metropolitan neighbours Port Elizabeth and East London experience.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t affected by them.

In order to get a buyer to pay for a car, they must (usually) believe it’s legitimate: car-cloning is the criminals’ tool of choice to make a stolen car appear to be the real deal. Car-cloning is a low- or no-contact crime – but it has a huge impact on its victims: both the victims of the original theft or carjacking, and the victims of cloning.

Licence renewal details for a vehicle bought from a legitimate dealer. Circled in red is where you find the vehicle’s unique identification numbers (blurredd to protect those details).

What is a cloned car?
Every vehicle has three unique identification numbers physically present on it, and one number on its registration papers. These will be used by various law enforcement officials and dealerships in buying or registering a vehicle.

These are:
* VIN number
* Engine number
* Licence number.

The number on the papers is the vehicle’s registration certificate number. Together, these identification numbers may be understood as a car’s Natis Information. It stands for National Traffic Information System.

When you register your vehicle at any traffic and licensing department, they give you a registration certificate. Every vehicle is by law required to have a registration certificate with all its Natis information present on the certificate.

Where do I find all of these numbers?
The Natis document lists your car’s four main identification numbers. These are the VIN number and engine number, licence number and vehicle registration number.

  • The vin number is a 17-character number located on the dashboard, or the corner of your windscreen.
  • The engine number is a series of 10 digits engraved or stamped on the engine.
  • The licence number is the numbers/letters present on your number plate, both in the front and the back of the car.
  • The vehicle registration certificate number is on the Natis document.

When a criminal clones a car they change the number on the engine and the VIN number on the dashboard, to match those of another, legal, car. The car will seem legal, until the new owner tries to register it, or SAPS notices the duplicate numbers.

The first sign that a car may be cloned is when two vehicles share their identity numbers. The car’s identification numbers are duplicated and that’s why it’s called a cloned car.

How to clone a car

  • Steal a car with the registration number 111 AAA EC.
  • Using your dodgy connections, obtain the registration vehicle of another vehicle (not stolen) – say, 222 BBB EC – and use it for the stolen car. The stolen car’s numbers then no longer exist but there are now two vehicles driving around with the registration identification numbers of 222 BBB EC.
  • The stolen vehicle is never recovered.
  • The owner of the vehicle that originally had 222BBB EC as its legitimate identification number is under suspicion fraud or cloning.

Partners in crime

Grocott’s Mail spoke to a source in a large metropolitan area who has been involved in the repair and selling of second-hand cars for over 20 years. They themselves have been a victim of cloning. They have also cloned cars themselves and successfully negotiated bribes with corrupt law-enforcement officials.

They are no longer involved in this practice and fear for their life should they speak up against the syndicates and corrupt officicials. They explain that in most cases, they need a partner in crime, usually inside a licensing department.

A criminal from the syndicate would get the registration information/ Natis numbers from a person who works in the licensing department. They would then steal a car, take it to their back yard workshop. There, they cut out the piece of metal where the relevant numbers are etched on, and replace it with another block of metal etched with the stolen registration details.

Alternatively, they could ‘write’ the numbers onto the vehicle using a portable machine they can carry around in their pocket. It simply melts the original metal and then re-writes the numbers on top of the melted metal.

“You leave it to cool and nothing looks different,” they said.

Anyone who has access to your Natis information, including the syndicates, could clone your car. This could range from post office officials who renew your licence disks to corrupt police officials who ask to look at your numbers at a road block.

Corruption comes in when SAPS and law enforcement officers give out the information they have access to, said the source. They give this information to the syndicate and its various runners and use it to clone a car. They may also take your vehicle from you, claiming that it is cloned – and clone it themselves.

“Officials very often overlook people who have cloned cars and who clone cars for the right amount of paper,” says our informant. They have paid off officials many times when caught in a roadblock or when trying to register a vehicle – or even when trying to request official police clearance on the vehicle.

When we asked our informant about corruption and how often they come across cloned cars, this was their reply:

“It’s a thriving business. it happens every day and more than we care to admit. Everyone knows someone who does it, and it is in every community. SAPS and the government know about it but they don’t want to do anything about it because they get money from it and they have been getting so much money all these years.”

Corrupt law enforcement officials provide the unique vehicle identifiers of legitimate vehicles in exchange for cash. Photo (posed by models): Kimberly Oosthuizen

How do you protect yourself from car cloning?
Car cloning is a regular occurrence in bigger centres such as Johannesburg. We spoke to Aadil Davis the ex-chairperson of ICE Community Policing forum community protection group in Florida, Johannesburg, to find out how you can prevent it.

“First and foremost, you must make sure you buy from a reputable dealership: someone who has been around for over 10 years and has a good customer service history,” says Davis.

A dealership is more likely to be reputable if:
* Its vehicles don’t vary widely in price;
* Its vehicles are not half the price of its competitors or its market value;
* It has both a landline and cellphone number on its dealership signage.

Second, be aware that when buying both a new and second hand car there are certain components that must come with the car, such as two sets of keys and the original registration and ownership papers of the car issued by the licencing department, as well as the log and manual.

Third, check that the three identification numbers correspond with the numbers on the registration/ ownership papers and that they do not appear tampered with (the mental surface is the same colour and has no dents or scratches present around it).

Willie Labuschagne is the General Manager at Kilikor Motors, a reputable secondhand car dealership in Johannesburg. Labuschagne is in charge of buying in cars for the dealership, inspecting the vehicles for any problems (i.e. faults, cloned car parts, stolen vehicles).

He is very knowledgeable in detecting cars which have been fraudulently offered.

“When you buy a second hand car you should phone the head office of the brand of the car you wish to buy and verify the Natis numbers, as well as the colour of the car. Alternatively, you can go down to the police station and request police clearance on the car. This will then show you that the car has not been cloned,” says Labuschagne.

Know your rights

If you are caught in a roadblock, or an officer comes to your house claiming that your car has been cloned, they must present you with a warrant to search and take you car. If a case has already been opened and your car is found to be the cloned, they must then present you with the docket number and they may then take your car. ****

Who can we trust?

Given that this crime trend is fuelled predominately by the underhand doings of corrupt law-enforcement officials, the next question is who is working to weed out this corruption?

The answer is the Insurance Crime Bureau, a non-profit company dedicated to fighting organised insurance crimes and fraud.

Having been around since 2008, The Insurance Crime Bureau has made a significant impact on both the Short-Term and Long-Term Insurance Industry and to society as a whole. This mandate is achieved by bringing together the collective resources of insurance companies (like 1st for Women or OUTsurance), law enforcement agencies (SAPS and traffic licensing departments) and other stakeholders to facilitate the detection, prevention and mitigation of insurance crimes, as well as assist in the prosecution of repeat offenders and fraudsters through ongoing insurance fraud investigation.

Garth De Klerk, CEO of the Insurance Crime Bureau, explains that they are aware of both the cloned car crime syndicate, as well as the corruption among some law-enforcement officials that fuels it. They have teams of people dedicated to stopping the syndicates and, more important, they work closely with SAPS.

“We will investigate it, but if we don’t know about it, we can’t stop it,” says De Klerk.

Contact the Bureau on info@saicb.co.za and on their anonymous tipoff line at 011 021 1432, to report corruption.

What about insurance?
De Klerk explains that most car insurances cover you and will pay out if your vehicle is found to have been cloned, if you can prove you had no knowledge/ignorance that it was cloned and you can lead them directly to the person or dealership you bought if from. But even this is not a guarantee.

What now?
The reality is that the majority of middle-class people can only afford to buy a second hand car. In order to be protected from the rapidly growing crime trend which is catching innocent second hand car buyers, you need to know what to look for. Ensure you buy from a reputable dealership and get clearance done on the prospective car, so that you don’t become the next victim of car cloning syndicates.

The wheels of injustice

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