INVESTIGATES: Chop-shops swapping VIN numbers as illegally cloned cars being sold to local buyers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Imagine buying a used car and finding out not only did you NOT get what you paid for, but it’s also totally different car. Criminals think they can do it by swapping the vehicle registration numbers.


It’s basically a bait and switch for cars, essentially swapping identifying information on the vehicle to pull one over on buyers. They do it to cover up damage, theft or worse, making money in the process.

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Whether it’s a traffic stop on I-75, or a stolen vehicle investigation on the West Side of Jacksonville, illegal cloned cars are hiding in plain sight.

Lt. Nassim Mana oversees the unit that investigates the crime for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. He says it’s all about financial gain. He says they’re “purchasing the vehicle or stealing the car or purchasing the car for cheaper, then use those numbers to put them somewhere else for a higher value.”

Mana says cloned cars are when crooks take the vehicle identification number from one car and illegally put it on another, either to cover up major damage, the fact it’s stolen or was involved in another crime.

In Jacksonville, his officers uncovered a chop-shop with almost thirty different vehicles, all of them stolen and several of them soon-to-be-cloned cars.

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“We discovered them,” he says, “some vehicles were rebuilt and others were in the process of being re-VIN’ed.”

That warrant netted the arrest of Reinaldo Perez and Eugenio Merlo. They faced a variety of charges, one of them was unlawful possession of a motor vehicle with the vehicle identification number removed, the first step toward passing it off as something else.

Officers caught it before someone got swindled, but retired FHP trooper Joe Lopez says that doesn’t always happen. “Somebody will complain,” Lopez says, “somebody will come to us and it’s usually too late.”

The number of cloned VINs have more than doubled in Florida, from 30 in 2019 to 75 in 2022. We also pulled local numbers from Florida Highway Patrol. Last year, just in Duval county, FHP recovered four stolen cars that had been made into cloned vehicles.

“Consumers have to do the best to reduce possibility of being victimized,” says Mana, and says there are simple ways to do that.

VINs aren’t just on the dash, they’re in the door and under the hood. Make sure all those show the same number.

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Also, make sure that number matches the VIN on the title and the name on that title matches the ID of the person selling you the car.

Dealerships also have an electronic on-board reader that verifies the VIN from the car’s computer system. Plus, you should always check the Carfax report against the vehicle itself.

If the mileage is different, it’s probably not the same car. “If you go from 20, 30, 50,000 (miles) now it’s down to 20,” he says, “it’s a red flag.”

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