A cloned car could cost you thousands

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BRADENTON - If you're in the market for a new car, beware the one you find online where the seller offers a great deal, and asks for cash. The car could be a clone.

That's not an exact copy of another car's DNA. It's a stolen car whose vehicle identification number (VIN) has been altered before the the thief re-sells it to an unsuspecting buyer. The Manatee County Tax Collector's office warns people that, while not common, cloned cars can cost a victim thousands of dollars. "We had recovered a Mercedes here that was about $60,000," says Tony Conboy, the office's Current Collections Director. "So we're talking about substantial amounts of money."

In a recent case, a staff member became suspicious of someone who had come to the tax collector's office attempting to transfer the title of a 2012 Honda. The man across the counter had paid well below the car's market value, in cash, to a private seller. The car had been stolen, its VIN altered. "The paperwork on the car was no good, so the folks are out the money and the car," Conboy says.

"With what we deal with, there's fraud all the time," says Tax Collector Ken Burton, Jr. He has put his staff through training "beefing them up on fraud." For cloned cars, one of the tools used to spot trouble is available to you: Carfax and similar services that detail a vehicle's history. Cars sold at licensed dealerships rarely have this problem. It usually happens in private sales, advertised online, offering deals that seem too good to be true, "which is another warning to our employees," Conboy says.

If they suspect fraud, it's easy to check. A car has a VIN on its dashboard, near the base of the windshield. But it has another one, not commonly known, and in different places on different car models. This confidential VIN's location is known only to police, who can check to see if it matches the one on the dash. If not, they know they have a clone.