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The secret life of your car's VIN

Your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) may look random, but it is anything but.

By QuinStreet Jul 17, 2014 4:48PM
This post comes from Barbara Marquand at partner site on MSN MoneyYour car's vehicle identification number, commonly known as a VIN, may look like a meaningless string of random numbers and letters.

But together those 17 digits make up an impressive one-of-a-kind combination, following the car from the factory to the scrap heap.

A VIN tag © SQUIB/Alamy"A VIN is to a car what a fingerprint is to a person," says Frank Scafidi, spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

A variety of agencies and companies use VINs to report and access information about vehicles. Thanks to the VIN, a car insurance company can check whether a car has a salvage title, a body shop can order the right parts for repairs and police can identify stolen vehicles.

You can find your car's VIN on the dashboard near the windshield and inside the doorframe on the driver's side. On some cars, the VIN is located on additional parts, such as the bumpers or steering column. The locations are based on the car's theft risk and are standardized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The VIN also appears on documents, such as your car title, registration and auto insurance ID card.

Decoding a VIN

Automakers started using various forms of identification numbers in 1954, and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration standardized VINs in 1981 so no car could be mistaken for another. All cars made since then have VINs that follow the same format. CarFax Inc., which sells vehicle-history reports based on VINs, offers a handy VIN decoder on its website:

  • The first digit tells the country where the vehicle was made. A 1, 4 or 5 is used for the United States.
  • The second digit tells who made it. For example, A is for Audi, Jaguar or Mitsubishi. B is for BMW or Dodge. C is for Chrysler and so on.
  • The third digit tells the vehicle's type or manufacturing division.
  • Digits four through eight give information about the vehicle's model, such as body style, engine type, transmission or other parts, depending on the manufacturer.
  • Known as a "check digit," the ninth digit is the result when the other digits are plugged into a formula developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Computers can tell if a VIN is invalid if the check digit doesn't match the result of the formula.
  • The 10th digit is the vehicle's model year. Letters and numbers 0 through 9 are used to denote the year -- 2014 is E -- and are recycled every 30 years. The letters I, O, Q, U and Z are never used.
  • The 11th digit indicates the manufacturing plant where the vehicle was assembled. Each automaker has its own plant codes.
  • Digits 12 through 17 make up a number created by the manufacturer. The number may indicate the order in which the vehicle came off the assembly line.
VINs and car insurance

You can get initial car insurance quotes for a vehicle without its VIN, but you'll have to supply the VIN to buy a policy. The insurance company will check the VIN to make sure the vehicle has never been declared a total loss. Some car insurance companies won't sell insurance for vehicles with salvage titles.

When you register the vehicle, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will make sure the VIN on your insurance ID card matches your vehicle's VIN to confirm that it's properly insured. Most states require car owners to carry insurance.

Thinking about buying a used car? With the VIN, you can buy a vehicle-history report based on data from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. The report, available from approved providers for a nominal fee, provides the vehicle's brand and title histories and any reported odometer readings. You can also buy more extensive reports from companies like Carfax and AutoCheck to learn about recalls, whether airbags were ever deployed, any damage to the car's frame, how the vehicle was used and other details.

Meanwhile, the NICB offers a free VINCheck service that lets you see whether a car has been reported stolen or as a salvage vehicle.

"The screening of VIN numbers is extremely important to preventing fraud and theft," Scafidi says.

Law enforcement officers in the field know something is awry if a car's VIN matches that of a vehicle reported stolen, or if a vehicle has different VIN numbers on various parts, Scafidi says. Another red flag is if the decoded VIN doesn't match the vehicle's characteristics. That could indicate a VIN switch. Thieves take VIN plates from vehicles with no theft records and put them on stolen cars to fool unsuspecting buyers.

Preventing car theft

You can deter car thieves by having your VIN permanently stenciled on the car's windshield and windows -- and possibly save money on car insurance for doing so.

"Many insurance companies give you a discount off of the comprehensive portion of your car insurance policy for VIN etching," says consumer analyst Penny Gusner.

"The etching makes a vehicle easier to track and harder for thieves to resell."

The etched glass reduces a stolen car's value because chop shops can't sell the glass, which otherwise makes up a big portion of the profit. Car insurance discounts for VIN etching typically range from 5 to 15 percent.

"Law enforcement agencies and car associations offer free VIN etching events from time to time with most events occurring in the summer months," Gusner says.

You can also buy do-it-yourself VIN etching kits online or at automotive parts stores.

More from

Jul 17, 2014 9:05PM
Carfax and like companies are not fail safe.  Not every accident is reported by body shops or insurance companies to Carfax.  Sometimes car dealers will have accident repairs, done at the dealership, not reported so unsuspecting buyers see a clean Carfax report.  So a "clean" Carfax report should be taken with a grain of salt.
Jul 17, 2014 11:28PM
The writer isn't all that knowledgeable. He didn't mention that the rivets that actually hold the vin plate on have different shapes for a purpose. Some are round while some are rosette style. Some older models don't even use rivets to hold them in. There is also occasions where some model BMW's use two different vins that go to the same car. If the car was shipped from another country where it was sold first, it would have the factory of origin. After arriving in the U.S., a different vin tag could be applied so the door tag won't match but both numbers will come back to the same car. This article is also based on vehicles that only contain 17 digits, while cars made before 1980 but after 1963 only have 13 digits. Cars made before 1963 only had 11 digits and some very early models only had 7-9 digits. 
Jul 18, 2014 8:56AM
CarFax is the biggest racket the Auto Industry has ever seen.  They created a market for themselves by instilling fear in the public.  Want to know the history of a vehicle, just plump down $39.99 and they give the same information you can retrieve at your local DMV.  I sell cars for a living and when a potential client asks about a CarFax, I know that they are naive and have only been sucked in by a program based on fear.  New car dealers will provide a CarFax on every one of their used vehicles for sale but know that they simply have passed on the cost to the naive buyer.  Can you imagine a CarFax on a used vehicle with under 20,000 miles that the dealer can certify is a one owner vehicle with a written history record?  This is how CarFax has imposed a TAX on just about every used vehicle in the United States. 
Jul 17, 2014 7:24PM
Jul 18, 2014 8:57AM
Vehicles also have a "Hidden VIN " usually on some component of a car or truck. The rear axel of the truck used in the Oklahoma City Bombing was identified after the explosion  by the Hidden VIN. It was matched to a truck rented in Kansas days before the bombing.
Jul 18, 2014 9:45AM

That article is incorrect. U and Z are both used in the 17 digit VIN on vehicles. I am a title clerk and see these VIN numbers everyday.

Jul 17, 2014 7:35PM
For some manufacturers, like BMW, the VIN (last 7 digits) can also tell you all the options on the car. I believe most automakers can do that, they have their own records, but some make it available to the public, which is invaluable when looking for a car with specific options.
Jul 18, 2014 9:47AM
Pitiful writing, simply pitiful...Buy the way I've wrecked my truck twice, no police reports were filed because it didn't involve another accident, repairs were made by me, And it'll never show up on car fax...So now what? duhhhhhhhh
Jul 18, 2014 8:06AM
And by etching the VIN on the glass, a thief can take the VIN to a dealer and have a key made so they don't have to break into the car to steal it the old fashioned way.
Jul 18, 2014 10:43AM
Of course your VIN is not a random string of numbers and letters. There are many sites you can go to that can decode your VIN and give you information like where your car was assembled, the engine type/size, the day of the week it was built, etc.
Jul 18, 2014 9:38AM

Not mentioned – most if not all motor vehicles have a hidden [secret] VIN number. The precise location of that VIN is considered “confidential” and only authorized law enforcement personnel and other specialized vehicle theft personnel are supposed to know where and how to locate it. Note: Depending on the model and year of the vehicle (it changes every year), access to it may required cutting an opening in say, a certain location of the trunk floor, or by having to remove a major body part of the vehicle --, e.g; a fender.

Jul 19, 2014 9:27PM

I noticed that the PUSSIES at MSN deleted my comment (Which had the MOST UP VOTES, by the way). It's OBVIOUS I must have "Insulted" the integrity of their "Wanna-be Writers"  by stating that they shouldn't be paid any more than the minimum wage until they actually start "Researching" a topic..........prior to writing about it with little to NO Knowledge.........

Exibit A---They Write:"because chop shops can't sell the glass, which otherwise makes up a big portion of the profit"

The GLASS makes up a big portion of the profit???????????????  Chop shops rarely EVER sell the glass AT ALL....... WHY?........Because it's the CHEAPEST part of the vehicle, outside of the bulb for the Map Light or the KNOBS on the RADIO!!!!

Anyways................Nice way to "Silence" any "Opposing" or "Dissenting" views very COMMUNIST-----and Predictable of your entire staff!!!!!  Hitler, Stalin, & Moa would be PROUD of you all!!!!!

Jul 18, 2014 3:42PM

Obama condemns Russia for the death of an American on board the jet that went down.


But who cares about the 4 dead in Benghazi huh Mr. Liar-In-Chief?

No wonder spell checker says the word Obama is a mistake! 

Jul 18, 2014 9:48AM

didn't involved another vehicle


Jul 18, 2014 12:25PM
I think odometer readings should have to be reported annually as well as replaced or repaired odometers, regardless of the vehicles age. Also engine changes or rebuilds.
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