How to spot and avoid clocked, stolen or unsafe cars

Buying a used car should be an exciting experience. To make sure it is, follow our tips below to avoid buying a car that has a hidden past, turns out be stolen or is illegal

First published: 13th July 2015
Stolen vehicles
The onus is on buyers to ensure their next vehicle isn’t a stolen one. Even if a vehicle is bought in good faith, if it turns out to be stolen, the police can seize it; and, if it has been bought on finance, the lender can still demand payment.

Stolen vehicles are usually passed on with their identity changed, but there are some golden rules to help reduce the risk of buying a ‘hot’ vehicle:
  • Always invest in a history check. It’ll immediately reveal if a car is stolen or written-off
  • See an original copy of the V5C registration document – also known as the logbook – and check it carries its DVLA watermark
  • Don't buy a car without its logbook. Stolen vehicles are often sold this way, with the seller claiming it has been sent to the DVLA for updating. It may be the case, but there’s no way of checking
  • Ensure the seller’s address on the logbook matches the one on their driving licence or utility bill
  • Check the car's number plate and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) match those recorded on the logbook
A clocked vehicle is one where an unscrupulous seller has ‘wound back’ (ie reduced) the mileage recorded on the milometer, generally to increase the car's value.

That means vehicles with high mileage could be passed off as having a low mileage to an unwitting buyer, who then pays over the odds. However, spotting a clocked vehicle can be straightforward with little more than a bit of detective work.
  • Check the mileage on the milometer in the instrument cluster tallies with the car's service history and old MOT certificates. Alternatively, visit GOV.UK to check the MOT history
  • Ensure the numbered barrels are aligned correctly on analogue milometers
  • Check the car's general condition matches its age and mileage. Wear on the seats and steering wheel or lots of stone chips can point to a high mileage
  • If the car has a patchy service history - or none at all - a history check can help verify the mileage
  • Contact previous owners to verify the recorded mileage when they sold the vehicle
Vehicle ringing
A ‘Ringer’ is a stolen vehicle that has had its identification numbers replaced by a set from another written-off model and is supplied with bogus documentation.

Ringers have their VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) replaced, so look for evidence of tampering around where the number is recorded. You can find the number on a small plate riveted under the bonnet and stamped on the vehicle’s chassis, under the carpet beside the front seat. In addition, the VIN will sometimes appear in the door pillar or at the base of the windscreen.

If you buy a ringer, it doesn’t legally belong to you, and will be returned to the owner or insurance company if and when it is traced back to you.

Follow these steps to avoid that happening:
  • Ensure the V5C registration document (logbook) is genuine, with a DVLA watermark running through it
  • Check for tampering around the VIN numbers
  • Make sure there is a satisfactory amount of paperwork
Cut and shuts
A 'Cut and shut' is the name given to a vehicle where the remains of two or more cars have been welded together to create a ‘new’ model.

The structural integrity of such vehicles is seriously compromised, and can lead to serious injuries in a crash. So, follow these tips to avoid putting yourself in danger.
  • Examine the windscreen pillars and the middle section of the vehicle for signs of welding. Also, pull away the carpets and trim for signs of hidden welds
  • Look for poor paintwork or colours that don’t match properly; and, check for paint accidentally sprayed on glass seals and trim
  • Watch out for badly fitting or mismatched trim
  • A history check will highlight if a vehicle has been stolen or written-off – a cut and shut could be both
Cloned vehicles
A vehicle which wears the stolen number plates from an identical model is known as a clone.

Clones are not necessarily stolen vehicles, with some criminals using stolen number plates to avoid parking or speeding fines, leaving the owner of the genuine vehicle to pick up the bill.

Many owners are unaware they’re a victim of such a crime until fines begin arriving; and, the onus is on them to prove their innocence.
  • Always check the number plate and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) matches those appearing in the logbook
  • Check for signs of damaged number plates, or evidence they have been recently removed or replaced
  • A history check can provide clues to identify a clone, such as colour, trim specification and – in some cases – mileage
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Related topics:
Buying a new car