People are stealing cars in San Diego and disguising their stolen statuses to sell them to unsuspecting customers, according to local auto theft detectives. They said it is an illegal operation called “vin cloning” or “car cloning” that cheats victims out of tens of thousands of dollars.
People “make the stolen vehicle look legitimate in every aspect,” Officer John Nelson with the California Highway Patrol said. “The paperwork and the vehicle identification (VIN) plate and everything. It’s very difficult for regular patrol officers as well [to tell].”
San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force detectives told NBC 7 Investigates cars are stolen in San Diego and sent to Mexico to get “cloned.” That means the criminals literally pry the manufacturer-installed VIN plates off the cars’ dashboards and replace them with other plates from cars that were not stolen. Detectives said the VIN could be from a salvaged car, found online or by just walking through a parking lot and snapping a photo of a parked car’s VIN plate. People are also adept at replicating all other car registration documents to make the stolen car seem as legitimate as possible, according to detectives.
With the new identity, the disguised stolen cars are brought back to San Diego and sold on sites like Craigslist or through individual transactions.
“It’s really on-demand crime,” Christopher Basso with CarFax said. “Someone wants a high-end vehicle. They’re stealing those cars. They’re stealing VINs from similar cars and manipulating paper work and making those stolen cars look exactly like those similarly registered vehicles.”
According to detectives some signs the car you are looking to buy might be a cloned car include:
- Sold on a site like Craigslist or through a questionable individual purchase
- Vehicle is advertised for much less than it should be, even if used
- Seller asks for cash and seems to want to make a quick sell
- Lack of car history information
- VIN plate seems tampered with (scratches or bubbles)
NBC 7 Investigates spoke to Ocean Beach resident Gary Komo whose Ford F250 was stolen in an elaborate local car cloning scheme. He said his car was stolen from right outside him home.
“To have your whole car stolen. You whole truck, yeah just a major violation,” Komo said.
After getting “cloned” in Mexico, the detectives found Komo’s truck and more than a dozen other cloned cars on the Barona Indian Reservation and in the East County.
Detectives determined Brandon McNeil of Lakeside was the mastermind behind selling the cloned cars in San Diego. McNeil and his family are well-known in San Diego’s and Baja’s off-road racing community.
NBC 7 Investigates learned this was not McNeil’s first run-in with the law. He and his brother Tyler McNeil were convicted in Arizona for running a similar operation. They sold salvaged cars for more than they were worth, according to court documents.
Brandon McNeil pleaded not guilty in the San Diego case. His attorney said his client did not know the vehicles were stolen and had no interaction with those who initially stole the cars. Tyler McNeil did not respond to NBC 7 Investigates’ requests for comment on the Arizona case.
McNeil has been criminally charged in San Diego for trying to sell these fraudulent vehicles to victims. They include low income families with multiple children, according to detectives.
“When law enforcement comes to take the stolen vehicle, you’re stuck without a car and likely a high loan,” said Basso.
Detectives said, on average, cloned cars are sold for $40,000-$60,000. At times, they’re sold for as much as $80,000 depending on the vehicle. Insurance likely does not cover this kind of loss, according to Basso.
Basso’s final tip to avoid a cloned car is to do thorough research on the vehicle’s history. He said you have to know what you are buying before putting down your hard-earned money. Good thing to keep in mind: If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.