The secret life of your car's VIN
Your car's vehicle identification number, commonly known as a VIN, may look like a meaningless string of random numbers and letters.
But together those 17 digits make up an impressive one-of-a-kind combination, following the car from the factory to the scrap heap.
"A VIN is to a car what a fingerprint is to a person," says Frank Scafidi, spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).
A variety of agencies and companies use VINs to report and access information about vehicles. Thanks to the VIN, a car insurance company can check whether a car has a salvage title, a body shop can order the right parts for repairs and police can identify stolen vehicles.
You can find your car's VIN on the dashboard near the windshield and inside the doorframe on the driver's side. On some cars, the VIN is located on additional parts, such as the bumpers or steering column. The locations are based on the car's theft risk and are standardized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The VIN also appears on documents, such as your car title, registration and auto insurance ID card.
Decoding a VIN
Automakers started using various forms of identification numbers in 1954, and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration standardized VINs in 1981 so no car could be mistaken for another. All cars made since then have VINs that follow the same format. CarFax Inc., which sells vehicle-history reports based on VINs, offers a handy VIN decoder on its website:
- The first digit tells the country where the vehicle was made. A 1, 4 or 5 is used for the United States.
- The second digit tells who made it. For example, A is for Audi, Jaguar or Mitsubishi. B is for BMW or Dodge. C is for Chrysler and so on.
- The third digit tells the vehicle's type or manufacturing division.
- Digits four through eight give information about the vehicle's model, such as body style, engine type, transmission or other parts, depending on the manufacturer.
- Known as a "check digit," the ninth digit is the result when the other digits are plugged into a formula developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Computers can tell if a VIN is invalid if the check digit doesn't match the result of the formula.
- The 10th digit is the vehicle's model year. Letters and numbers 0 through 9 are used to denote the year -- 2014 is E -- and are recycled every 30 years. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z are never used.
- The 11th digit indicates the manufacturing plant where the vehicle was assembled. Each automaker has its own plant codes.
- Digits 12 through 17 make up a number created by the manufacturer. The number may indicate the order in which the vehicle came off the assembly line.
VINs and car insurance
You can get initial car insurance quotes for a vehicle without its VIN, but you'll have to supply the VIN to buy a policy. The insurance company will check the VIN to make sure the vehicle has never been declared a total loss. Some car insurance companies won't sell insurance for vehicles with salvage titles.
When you register the vehicle, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will make sure the VIN on your insurance ID card matches your vehicle's VIN to confirm that it's properly insured. Most states require car owners to carry insurance.
Thinking about buying a used car? With the VIN, you can buy a vehicle-history report based on data from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The report, available from approved providers for a nominal fee, provides the vehicle's brand and title histories and any reported odometer readings. You can also buy more extensive reports from companies like Carfax and AutoCheck to learn about recalls, whether airbags were ever deployed, any damage to the car's frame, how the vehicle was used and other details.
Meanwhile, the NICB offers a free VINCheck service that lets you see whether a car has been reported stolen or as a salvage vehicle.
"The screening of VIN numbers is extremely important to preventing fraud and theft," Scafidi says.
Law enforcement officers in the field know something is awry if a car's VIN matches that of a vehicle reported stolen, or if a vehicle has different VIN numbers on various parts, Scafidi says. Another red flag is if the decoded VIN doesn't match the vehicle's characteristics. That could indicate a VIN switch. Thieves take VIN plates from vehicles with no theft records and put them on stolen cars to fool unsuspecting buyers.
Preventing car theft
You can deter car thieves by having your VIN permanently stenciled on the car's windshield and windows -- and possibly save money on car insurance for doing so.
"Many insurance companies give you a discount off of the comprehensive portion of your car insurance policy for VIN etching," says Insure.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "The etching makes a vehicle easier to track and harder for thieves to resell."
The etched glass reduces a stolen car's value because chop shops can't sell the glass, which otherwise makes up a big portion of the profit. Car insurance discounts for VIN etching typically range from 5 to 15 percent.
"Law enforcement agencies and car associations offer free VIN etching events from time to time with most events occurring in the summer months," Gusner says.
You can also buy do-it-yourself VIN etching kits online or at automotive parts stores.
More from Barbara Marquand here