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VIN Plate Tampering: A Federal Crime You Don’t Want to Commit

If you look far and long enough, you’ll find several places and websites to purchase a VIN plate. In some cases, you’ll find actual VIN plates removed from a vehicle. Sometimes the VIN plate will come with a piece of the cowling; sometimes it’ll come with the rivets and a title. However, just because it’s available, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to purchase and use on your vehicle.

Before you decide to do this, you’ll need to be aware of the federal laws surrounding VIN plates and VIN tampering. Oftentimes the reason someone wants to buy a VIN plate is to get around a permanent title brand, such as parts-only or a salvage title and they’re wanting to get it switched to a clean title without going through the bureaucratic steps. In most cases, when it comes to changing or removing VIN plates, what you’re intending to do might accidentally be a federal crime.

This crime is evidenced in 18 U.S. Code § 511 – Altering or removing motor vehicle identification numbers, and states the following:

“a) A person who—1) Knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters an identification number for a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part; or 2) with intent to further the theft of a motor vehicle, knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters a decal or device affixed to a motor vehicle pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Prevention Act, shall be fined under this title imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.”

It’s crucial to understand that the VIN is integral to the car. It’s what identifies the vehicle as the legal entity that it is; and if you start switching VINs, it’s almost like identity theft but for cars. You can’t put a Ford VIN on a Toyota and call it a Toyota. That VIN will always be a Ford VIN. When you start switching VINs to hide a title brand, it’s like trying to hide a criminal background. If you’re using a VIN switch to erase a brand or a lien or avoid inspection, that’s a federal crime.

Who can legally remove a VIN plate?

Even though the federal statute clearly states that it’s a crime to remove a VIN plate, certain entities are authorized to do it. 

According to 18 U.S. Code § 511 subsection (b), the following entities subsection (a) does not apply to the following unless the vehicle or part is stolen:

“(A) a motor vehicle scrap processor or a motor vehicle demolisher who complies with applicable State law with respect to such vehicle or part;

(B) a person who repairs such vehicle or part, if the removal, obliteration, tampering, or alteration is reasonably necessary for the repair;

(C) a person who restores or replaces an identification number for such vehicle or part in accordance with applicable State law; and

(D) a person who removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters a decal or device affixed to a motor vehicle pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act, if that person is the owner of the motor vehicle, or is authorized to remove, obliterate, tamper with or alter the decal or device by—

    (i) the owner or his authorized agent;

    (ii )applicable State or local law; or

    (iii) regulations promulgated by the Attorney General to implement the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act.” 

Most states require that if you’re going to take a VIN plate off for repair you notify the state police before doing so. You’ll have to have the vehicle inspected before taking the VIN plate off, then inspected again after it’s put back on. They want to make sure you’re not taking a stolen car and putting a clean VIN on it because that defeats the whole purpose of a VIN in the first place. If your VIN plate is damaged, missing, or destroyed and you need to get a new one, you may be able to apply for a new VIN assignment through your state’s DMV.

The short answer is it may be tempting to buy a title and a VIN plate online, slap it on your car and call your title problems solved, but the problem is that it’s a federal crime that the FBI typically investigates. There are people who are serving prison time for this, not county jail time. The DOJ does not take VIN tampering lightly. Any signs of VIN tampering will set off alarm bells when it’s time to title and register your vehicle. And if they find that your VIN has been tampered with, such as scratches or screws instead of rivets, there will be a whole mess of legal problems.

Police offers are trained to look for tampered VIN plates. Every time they pull someone over, they look at the VIN plate. Not just to see the numbers but to look at the tamper-proof rivets and see if they’re scratched, the VIN plate is crooked, or anything else that may indicate that the VIN has been tampered with. 

Even if you’re just taking the VIN plate off to paint the firewall correctly, with no foul intentions, just cosmetic to the vehicle, and it’s put back improperly, now your ownership is in jeopardy. VIN plates are crucial to the identity of the vehicle. If you have questions, consider contacting an attorney who specializes in automotive law. We are not lawyers and this is not legal advice. 

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