It’s not Star Wars that the Florida Bureau of Motor Vehicles is talking about when they warn car buyers to beware of ‘clones,’ but they are just as evil as the Empire.

Cloning is a way that intrepid car thieves can make their stolen vehicle look more legitimate to prospective buyers. Specifically it entails the thief copying a vehicle identification number from a legally registered vehicle which is already on the road. They use this copied number to forge a legitimate-looking registration plate and all the paperwork that goes along with it. Then they steal a car which matches the description of your vehicle (the one they stole the VIN from) and use the forged registration documents to sell it to an unsuspecting buyer.

Although the process of copying the VIN is rather simple, and new technology makes forging documents easier than ever, there are steps the savvy car buyer can take to save themselves from getting duped. The burden is on you, the buyer, to protect yourself from fraud. It may seem these days that someone is always out to get you, and while there are reasons to be suspicious, a little bit of common sense goes a long way toward protecting your best interests.

Take a lesson from My Improv Traffic School and be a good defensive driver before you even buy your car. That means you need to be aware of what’s going on around you at all times.

Florida is one of 37 states participating in a program to create an electronic database of vehicle registration information. But don’t rely only on the state protecting you from unscrupulous sellers. The Florida BMV recommends you also:

* Verify the vehicle VIN through the Department’s Motor Vehicle Check website to verify ownership and vehicle description information.

* Analyze the ownership pattern for any new or late model vehicle with no lien holder.

* Be careful about purchasing a used vehicle from an individual running a newspaper ad and using a cell phone number

* Get a copy of the vehicle’s history report.

* If possible, have your insurer inspect the vehicle prior to purchase.

* Trust your instincts: If you don’t like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away! If you’re car shopping, beware of a car being sold for substantially less than comparable makes and models.

* Check out the VIN plate on the dashboard for any evidence of tampering (scratches, etc.).

* Look for incorrect spellings on paperwork, like vehicle titles.

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