Was Your Car Registration Stolen? Here’s What To Do

November 13, 2023


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    What Makes Your Car Registration Valuable?

    In 2012, a man from Washington simply parked his vehicle in a public car park, looking forward to taking a two-hour break while watching a movie [*]. Meanwhile, thieves broke into his car, stole his registration, and used his address details to find and break into his home.

    "The sign says, don't leave your valuables in the car. But it doesn't say don't leave your registration in the car," the man recollects.

    This story is a timeless reminder of the inherent value held within your car registration. Perhaps most importantly, registration information connects your car to you and your address. Here are some of the important details that criminals can gather from your car registration documents.

    • Your full name and home address — This information proves that you own and have registered the car. It also supports criminal investigations and tax-related inquiries connected to the vehicle. Most states allow more than one name on the registration [*].
    • Car title ID number — The eight-digit number on your registration refers to your car title ID. This number links the registration with the title and owner of the vehicle. You may need the ID number when replacing your title.
    • Vehicle identification number (VIN) — The 17-digit VIN number is your vehicle's fingerprint. It contains the car's serial number, make, model, and manufacturer [*]. Besides identifying your vehicle, a VIN can help track the car's history and its insurance coverage.
    • License plate number — Your license plate number appears on your registration; and in some states, a registration sticker goes on your license plate. These decals verify that you paid the appropriate registration fees.
    • Make, model, and year — The make, model, and year of your vehicle usually appear near the top of your registration. These details are useful for insurance information and law enforcement investigations.
    • Registration expiration date — Most car registrations expire after one year, but some state DMVs assign two-year registrations. To renew your registration, you need to pay the required fees at your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
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    What Can Someone Do With Your Car Registration?

    According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), at least 75,000 incidents of vehicular crime took place each month in 2022 [*]. In total, there were over one million stolen vehicles in 2022, and countless other vehicles were broken into and looted.

    While many car thieves trawl for money, wallets, and electronics, some may go for your vehicle registration. Here are some reasons why criminals want your car registration:

    1. Obtain a replacement key
    2. Register and sell other vehicles
    3. Falsely claim auto insurance
    4. Create fake identities
    5. Find your address

    1. Obtain a replacement key

    You can replace virtually any type of car key at a locksmith or a dealership [*]. This typically requires information such as your car's VIN and the year, make, and model [*].

    You'll also need proof of ownership or registration. Unfortunately, if thieves have your registration, they likely have all this information.

    In early 2023, two thieves managed to persuade a locksmith to create new keys for a truck they intended to steal [*]. The unsettling detail here is that the perpetrators had neither identification nor the car's registration.

    While locksmiths and dealers who cut keys without verifying ownership can face legal action, a thief with a fake ID and vehicle registration can make a convincing case.

    2. Register and sell other vehicles

    Stolen registrations provide thieves with ample information to commit a variety of car-buying scams — including title washing and jumping, and VIN swapping, switching, and cloning.

    With your vehicle registration in hand, scammers can replicate your car's title and VIN. They can remodel a stolen car to resemble yours and proceed to sell it. When an unsuspecting buyer goes in to register the vehicle, the purchaser will discover that it's already registered to you.

    This was the unfortunate reality facing a Florida student when he bought a used truck for $20,000 [*]. It wasn't until he tried to register the truck that he realized it was stolen. The title was fake, and there were three fake VIN plates concealing the real one.

    ⛳️ Related: Someone Wants To Buy My Car Without Seeing It

    3. Falsely claim auto insurance

    Fraudulent insurance claims add up to more than $40 billion per year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) [*]. If someone steals your registration, they can use your information to forge documents, clone a car, and commit insurance fraud.

    Take phantom sideswipes, for instance [*]. In this common scheme, two criminals use stolen information to clone a salvage title car.

    The fraudsters then claim that the extensive damage on the salvage car was the result of an accident. The collaborator takes fault for the accident, and they pocket the awarded insurance money.

    4. Create fake identities

    The information on your car registration can be powerful in the hands of an identity thief. Similar to a stolen driver's license, a vehicle registration card contains your personally identifiable information (PII).

    This could lead to various identity theft scams, including financial, criminal, and tax identity theft. Scammers could clone your vehicle and run up traffic tickets and automobile charges in your name.

    Identity thieves may even register a vehicle in your name like they did in the case of a Los Angeles woman, leaving her responsible for the payments as well as the consequences for defaults [*].

    5. Find your address

    Car break-ins may provide thieves access to your home if you're not careful. If they find your registration, they can quickly learn where you live. If they also find your house keys or garage door opener, they can gain access to your home.

    A California man had his car stolen due to a sequence of similar events [*]. When thieves broke into one of his cars, they found his garage door opener and home address. They then entered his garage and stole his other car while his wife and two children were asleep inside the house.

    What To Do If Your Registration Was Stolen

    If your registration is taken, this can lead to more serious crimes like identity theft or burglary. To prevent further escalation, take the following steps:

    File a police report 

    Call, email, or visit your local law enforcement office to file a police report. Make note of everything that was stolen and provide as much information as possible. You should also request a copy of the police report for insurance and registration replacement purposes.

    Alert the Department of Motor Vehicles 

    While most DMVs don't investigate stolen car registrations, you still need to contact the DMV office to report the theft and apply for a duplicate registration card [*].

    In states like California, you need to visit in person to secure a replacement registration. Bring your proof of ownership, plate and VIN numbers, a police report, and the replacement fee [*].

    In some states, new registration applications go through the local Secretary of State or tax collector's office.

    Secure your vehicle (anti-theft measures)

    Though it won't get your registration back, consider bolstering your car’s security — such as by installing an alarm system and parking in more secure lots.

    You might also run your VIN number through NICB's VINCheck to ensure that it hasn't been cloned. A vehicle history report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) provides you with similar information.

    Report the theft to your auto insurance provider

    Explain to your car insurance provider that your registration was stolen. This may trigger a VIN search on their end, which could reveal suspicious activity, such as cloning. If the scammers do attempt to claim insurance by using your registration information, it should immediately get flagged as fraudulent.

    Monitor your credit report and bank accounts

    Look through your bank and credit card accounts for anything out of the ordinary. If you notice any unauthorized charges or new credit lines, freeze your credit with each of the three bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion).

    You can also sign up for a service like Identity Guard, which offers three-bureau credit monitoring and White Glove Fraud Remediation support.

    Consider identity theft protection

    An identity theft protection package can be one of the best responses to identity theft. Identity Guard alerts you if someone uses your personal data, including your name or Social Security number (SSN). You also receive financial account protection, digital security tools, and identity recovery support.

    ⛳️ Related: Do I Need Identity Theft Protection? What You Need To Know

    To Protect Your Car and Registration, Do This

    While you can never guarantee the safety of your belongings, you can take precautions that make it more difficult for thieves to steal or damage your possessions. Here are six ways to keep your car registration and your personal information safe. 

    • Keep your registration in your wallet or purse. Whenever you park, make sure you take your registration with you. If thieves break into your parked car, they won't have access to any of your personal information.
    • Leave documents at home. You can also leave your important documents at home or in a safe to protect them. This includes your car title and maybe even your owner's manual, as well. Keep photos of the documents on your phone in case you need to show them to police or refer to the information.
    • Conceal your garage door transceiver. When you park your car, hide or take your garage door opener with you. If thieves do manage to find your address, at least they won't have a way in. Be sure to bring your key fob with you, too.
    • Update the DMV in case of changes. If you move, make modifications, or sell your vehicle, let the DMV know. Keeping your vehicle records up to date will make it easier to spot fraudulent activity, such as VIN cloning.
    • Always use the official DMV website. If you do need to update your information or file a report with the DMV, use the official website. Scammers may create authentic-looking DMV websites or trick you with communications via phishing attempts aimed to steal your money and information.
    • Dispose of old documents. Expired registrations or information for old or sold vehicles should be disposed of carefully. Consider burning or shredding old documents to ensure that thieves don't find them in your trash.
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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers