Vehicle Identification Numbers

October 2, 2013 · Posted in News · Comments Off on Vehicle Identification Numbers 

Vehicle Identification Numbers

(What are they; where are they found and why are they important?)

 What is a Vehicle Identification Number?

A Vehicle Identification Number also commonly known by its acronym “VIN” is the unique identifying serial number of a motor vehicle.  Manufacturers of vehicle have assigned unique identifying numbers to their vehicles since the dawn of the automobiles however early forms of vehicle identification numbers were usually very short (three of four numbers) and usually found stamped in the engine block or on a small brass plate on the frame of body of the vehicle.  The process of identifying vehicles by their engine numbers started early on but a problem quickly arose when an engine had to be replaced.  This problem however was not rectified until approximately 1954.  Starting in approximately 1955 US auto manufacturers began using unique Vehicle Identification Numbers to uniquely identify all US built automobiles.  The compelling force behind this change in practice was a desire to work with law enforcement and state’s DMVs to reduce the amount and opportunity for VIN fraud and stolen vehicle trafficking.   Prior to 1954, vehicles were identified by body number, chassis number, serial number or engine number.  One can imagine how confusing this would have been and how great the potential for fraud would have been.

A VIN is the DNA of a vehicle, that is to say it is the unique identifier of every vehicle.  The VIN is the number by which s vehicle is registered and titled.  Decoding a VIN can tell you many things including when the vehicle was built, the model of the vehicle, the assembly plant and possibly even the original engine displacement.  Since a VIN plays such an important role in the identity of a vehicle, much fraud has arisen over the years surrounding VINs.

Where are VINs located and how can I tell if the VIN on my car is the correct VIN?

Since the beginnings of automotive production the engines, bodies and usually the frames of vehicles have been assigned identification numbers usually in a serialized fashion.  Beginning with the 1970 model year, nearly all vehicles produced for sale in the United States have had the VIN placed in at least three distinct locations.

  • Public VIN (since January 1, 1968 visible through the windshield)

In the United States, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (effective January 1, 1968) mandated certain safety requirements on vehicles to be sold in the USA such as side marker lights, safety belts and Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) visible on the dash through the windshield.  This is VIN location has come to be known as the “public VIN” and is probably the VIN that you are most familiar with.

  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Certification Sticker (since August 31, 1969 found in the door jamb or on the door)

Starting with all vehicles manufactured after August 31, 1969, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”) certification sticker was required to be affixed to the vehicle which also included the VIN of the vehicle.  Effective January 1, 1972, the sticker also had to include gross vehicle weight (“GVWR”) information on the certification label.  On Chevrolet models from the 1970s, this sticker is blue and is found on the driver’s door.

  • Hidden or Confidential VIN

VINs have been stamped into frames of vehicles for many years, however the process became more uniform starting approximately during the 1968 model year. The VIN was stamped into various metal objects on the vehicle, including the frame, the body, the engine, transmission and other places.  The VIN on the frame or the body became known as the Hidden VIN, the Confidential VIN or the Federal VIN.  This number is usually not a full, complete VIN but a derivative thereof.  The sequential production number of the hidden VIN should match the sequential production number (the last five or six digits) of the Public VIN and if the vehicle was produced after August 31, 1969, the FMVSS certification sticker.  The VIN on the engine and transmission would have also been a derivative of the VIN and it too should match the Public VIN provided that the engine and/or transmission is original.

Why are VINs so important?

A vehicle’s identification number is very important as it is the only unique identifier a vehicle possesses and accordingly its integrity and validity must be established and preserved.  This is especially true with collectible vehicles given their inherent and actual values.  When you look a vehicle for potential purchase, you must view the VIN in as many of the locations as you reasonable are able to view it.  Start with the public VIN and see if it is consistent with other examples of the year, make and model; ensure that it has not been tampered with or affixed in such a way as to make it not appear as original.  If the public VIN is missing, loose or appears tampered with in any way, contact a marque specialist and attempt to locate the hidden or confidential VIN for the vehicle to ensure the public VIN is the proper VIN.

What if the Confidential VIN and the Public VIN do not match?

If the confidential VIN and the public VIN do not match, you have a major problem which needs to be addressed professionally and legally.  In short, if the public and confidential VINs contradict one another, you have an unsalable vehicle with a title defect; specifically you have a vehicle which purports to have two identities.  Common reasons for the two not to match are that the vehicle itself is stolen or was stolen or salvaged in the past and another VIN (a good clean VIN) was affixed in the public location to make the vehicle appear as though it was “clean” when in reality it was not.  Another reason for the two VINs not to match is that the vehicle was rebuilt from several other vehicles.  If a vehicle has been rebuilt and bears two VINs that can be a problem as this is the usual excuse that is given when a vehicle has been “re-tagged” to disguise a title problem or a former theft; much scrutiny must be employed in this instance.   When the Confidential VIN and the Public VIN do not match it may also be an instance of a “rebody”.  A “rebody” is a vehicle which has had the body replaced and the VIN of the original vehicle affixed to the “donor” body.  The legal issues surrounding rebodied vehicles are explored in another article.

Many laws have been enacted to protect the integrity of the VIN.  Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 511, the alteration of a VIN, could be a federal criminal offense.  Further, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2321 whoever buys, receives, possesses, or obtains control of, with intent to sell or otherwise dispose of, a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part, knowing that an identification number for such motor vehicle or part has been removed, obliterated, tampered with, or altered, could be fined or imprisoned for up to ten years.  Similarly, Pennsylvania’s statutes also address this matter.  Specifically, 18 P.S. § 1.4(a) states that a person who alters, counterfeits, defaces, destroys, disguises, falsifies, forges, obliterates or removes a vehicle identification number with the intent to conceal or misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part commits a felony of the third degree and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than seven years or a fine of not more than $50,000.  Further, and most concerning is that pursuant to 18 P.S. § 1.4(b) any person who purchases, receives, disposes, sells, transfers or possesses a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part with knowledge that the vehicle identification number of the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part has been altered, counterfeited, defaced, destroyed, disguised, falsified, forged, obliterated or removed with the intent to conceal or misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part commits a felony of the third degree and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than seven years or a fine of not more than $50,000, or both.

In laymen’s terms the VIN of a vehicle must be preserved and protected and if you are in possession of a vehicle with a VIN or VIN tag or VIN plate which has been altered, removed and replaced or otherwise tampered with you could face serious civil and criminal offenses.  The best advice is to contact an attorney at once who can analyze your situation and assist you with identifying your legal options.

Attorney Bryan W. Shook is not only a devoted automotive enthusiast, but is also an experience litigator who devotes a large portion of his law practice to helping other collectors and hobbyists understand today’s market and protect their automotive investments. Attorney Bryan W. Shook is a seasoned automotive collector and restorer and as such brings real world experience and firsthand knowledge to the table for his clients throughout the world. Although Bryan Shook is headquartered in  central Pennsylvania (close proximity to Carlisle and Hershey), Attorney Bryan Shook is available anywhere for consultation, advice, and information, most times, on as short as a day’s notice. If you’d like more information about this topic or would like to speak with Attorney Bryan W. Shook please email him at BShook@shooklegal or by phone at 717-884-9010.  More information can be found at Http://