MIAMI, FL -- The FBI arrested 13 people in Miami, Tampa and Chicago Tuesday in "Operation Dual Identity," busting what's believed to be one of the largest car cloning rings in the agency's history. Arrests also were made in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico.
The operation, which agents believe may have been going on for 20 years, took vehicle identification numbers (VINs), license plate numbers and other identifiers from legal cars, placing fake duplicate plates and stickers onto vehicles stolen primarily in central and South Florida.
The stolen cars then could be taken across state lines or to other countries and sold to unwary customers, as the vehicles had legitimate VINs and plates.
Thieves have been able to get away with car cloning for years, consumer advocates say, because most state vehicle history systems aren't linked to a constantly updated national network, enabling the same VIN to exist in multiple states.
The ring moved about 1,000 stolen cars and pickup trucks, said FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier, for a total loss of $27 million. They were mostly high-end models, like Cadillac Escalades, or large SUVs taken from auto dealerships and private individuals. About 400 were recovered.
Agents still are hunting for four men believed to be in the Miami area or Mexico.
"Car cloning is sort of like identity theft for vehicles," said Couvertier, in the FBI's Tampa field office, where the arrest warrants for the 17 suspects were executed Tuesday.
The agency --with the cooperation of auto manufacturers, insurance carriers and multiple law enforcement agencies -- has been working the case since 2006, Couvertier said.
Couvertier said a new federal database that went online in January will make car cloning difficult to pull off in the future. Twenty-seven states, including Florida, are contributing real-time vehicle histories to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, and 10 additional states intend to join soon.
Private companies have contracts with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to draw information from the system, charging consumers between $1 and $5 a vehicle.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers free checks of VINs from cars reported stolen to insurers.
Copyright 2009 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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