How thieves can steal your car's identity

Posted at 10:25 PM, Jun 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-08 23:25:12-04

A Milwaukee woman got a ticket for running a red light in New York City, but she was at work here in Wisconsin that day.

The I-Team talked to police about how easy it is to steal a vehicle's identity, and how you can avoid being a victim.

Chris Bennett received an official-looking letter in the mail last month.  At first she thought it was a scam; Chris is glad she didn't throw it out.  Otherwise she might not have discovered someone was driving around with her license plate number. 

"I know I wasn't in New York City," she said. 

But someone using her license plate number was.

Chris got a $50 ticket for running a red light at 12th Avenue and 34th Street. 

"This is kind of unusual, because I'm looking at the picture and it's not my car," she said.

Chris went online to see the pictures of the violation. She drives a blue Honda.  The vehicle that blew the red light is silver, but the actual license plate number is the same.  "They pull the number when they get the ticket, and they look through all 50 states."

So Chris was slapped with the fine, because according to the Notice of Liability, the vehicle its red light cameras caught is registered to her. 

Tim Gauerke, sergeant with Milwaukee police, says many times people buy plates through third parties and don't know it’s stolen. 

"They don't have the means to get their car registered. They don't have a driver's license, or they just don't want to take the time or pay the fee," Gauerke said.

People report several cases of stolen plates a week to the MPD which sometimes turn up on a car used in a robbery or drug deal.  Just last week police found a gun and multiple baggies of what they believe were illegal drugs in a car.  The plates on that car did not match the vehicle.  

"They do that obviously to disguise the vehicle so it doesn't list back to them, if they in fact own the vehicle, and it's to help deter the process of an investigation,” Gauerke said.

In Chris' case the plates were not stolen off her car.  It appears someone just copied her license number.  When Chris called to explain this was a mistake the NYC Department of Finance looked up her registration info. 

"So she clearly could see that the car was the wrong make and model, wrong year, everything was not right," she said. 

Her ticket was canceled, and Chris was advised to get new plates right away.  Chris is just glad she didn't ignore the letter.

"It turns into collections, but this could be huge if you just threw it away," she said.

If someone steals your license plate MPD recommends reporting it to police instead of just replacing it.  That way it will be in the system as stolen.

There are a few easy things you can do to make it difficult for thieves.  Park in a public area that's well lit and well-traveled, if you see anything suspicious call police, and use non-standard screws to attach your license, like a star or square pattern.  If it's not easy to pry off the thieves might give up.