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Authorities Warn About Danger Of Buying Used 'VIN Switched' Cars

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- Some unlucky used car buyers have learned the hard way that when it turns out the vehicle they purchased was "VIN switched," authorities may have the right to seize or even destroy the car.

That can happen even after the car was registered with the DMV and insured.

Ruben Manasyan bought his used 2009 Toyota Camry off Craigslist almost five years ago. That was before the CHP showed up unannounced and hauled the car away, claiming it was evidence.

"They just come out of the blue. Boom. Car is stolen," said Manasyan.

According to the paperwork the CHP gave him, the car was a possible Vehicle Identification Number or VIN switched vehicle.

He said a CHP investigator told him parts on his car had been stolen.

The Department of Motor Vehicles says anyone buying a used car should be aware of an underground economy known as car cloning.

It could be described as id theft for cars. A thief steals a vehicle, pries off the VIN plates and replaces them with a VIN plate from junked, totaled or cars stolen out of state.

"It's really difficult to know if any given part is stolen," said DMV Supervising Investigator Tom Edwards. 

The DMV says before buying a used car, you should always take it to a mechanic with a trained eye who can compare vins strategically etched on parts throughout the car to see if they match.

"That will actually give you the ability to look at the parts, look at the vehicle's engine," said Edwards.

According to court documents, during a large scale investigation involving numerous VIN-switched vehicles, the CHP discovered Manasyan's car was originally stolen outside of Sacramento in 2010. The vehicle had been VIN switched.

The insurance company paid out the claim to the then owner.

So what happens to Manasyan's car now?

"The car is going on the press," he said.

A judge ordered the CHP to destroy it, meaning Manasyan is out a car and the $15,000 he paid for it.

"They said 'No, that car is not yours. That's it,'" said Manasyan.

While it is important to have a trusted mechanic inspect any used car before buying it, you can also look for other red flags like cars being sold for well below market value or scratches on the VIN plates on the dashboard or inside the driver's door.

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