What is a VIN Number?

Chances are you’ve been asked to provide your car’s VIN number at some point. Perhaps it was to the dealership, your insurance company, or a potential buyer, but did you know there’s more to that string of characters than meets the eye? If you’ve always wondered what a VIN number is or whether a VIN can be changed, you’re about to find out.

Summary A vehicle identification number (VIN) is a form of identification used in modern automobiles. VINs consist of data about the vehicle’s options, manufacture, and serial number. Government-maintained VIN histories include service records and information about current and previous owners; don't worry, this data is not public record.
A typical VIN plate.  source

A typical VIN plate. source

Defining a VIN

What is a VIN number?

A vehicle identification number (VIN) is like a car’s unique DNA sequence, a form of identification used by all modern motor vehicles. It contains data about the vehicle’s manufacture and country of origin, including some model-specific details and the vehicle’s unique production serial number.

The modern standardized length for VINs is 17 digits. This format prevents any two vehicles produced within 30 years of each other from having the same VIN number. Some vintage or obscure vehicles don’t have a standard-length VIN, while others have characters that don’t have a meaning.

Fun fact: the phrase “VIN number” is redundant. That’s because VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number.

How do you decode a VIN?

Through a process is called VIN Decoding – read about it here.

Where is the VIN located on a car?

For modern North American market vehicles, the VIN number can usually be found on the driver’s side dashboard near the base of the windshield. The same number is often attached to the body below the driver’s side door latch.

Especially with vintage vehicles, the serial number portion of the VIN can be found printed on the engine, transmission, and multiple body panels. The phrase “numbers matching” denotes a car bearing the correct serial number and equipment throughout.

What is a VIN used for?

VINs are used for nearly anything involving automobiles including sourcing parts, assigning tickets, and determining the original equipment and date of manufacture for vintage cars. Insurance companies use VINs to tie coverage to a specific vehicle, and title histories like Carfax are based on a car’s VIN – not the paper trail, the physical title, or even the license plate number. That’s because a car’s VIN is permanent.

That’s the idea, at least. More on that later.

VIN Histories and Data

Who keeps track of VINs? Who has access to VIN data?

State and federal governments track VIN numbers. This data can be accessed by DMV branches and a variety of other entities: vehicle history reporting companies like Carfax, nonprofits like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and border customs agencies are granted certain access to VIN data. Shops and dealerships can upload records under that number to add to the car’s service history.

In other words, VIN data is not public record.

Is it safe to give my VIN number to a stranger?

Yes! It is completely safe to provide your car’s VIN to a potential buyer, online or in person. The VIN can only be used to obtain general information about your vehicle’s service records and ownership history. A person can simply walk up and read your car’s VIN, and even that poses no danger because VIN data is not public record.

A VIN search does provide limited personal information including the name and address of the last registered owner.

What stops someone from buying my VIN history?

Since VIN data is not public record, abusing it is a crime. Companies like Carfax charge a nominal fee for their services to deter would-be scammers from using them for nefarious reasons.

Some criminal abuses of VIN data include using a vehicle history service to locate a person of interest and using VIN data for marketing purposes. Don’t worry, these abuses are uncommon and again, they’re highly illegal. To this end, most VIN check websites present a version of this statement to their users:

“WARNING: You may only conduct License Plate and VIN owner information searches to carry out one or more of the approved purposes of either the "Automobile Information Disclosure Act", the "Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Saving Act", the "National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966", the "Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992", or the "Clean Air Act", all as now or hereafter amended. By submitting this form, you attest that you are running the search for an approved reason and you will not share the data with anyone who is not authorized to view it by law.”

VIN Tampering

Can a VIN number be changed?

Not legally.

This is another reason why it’s important to run a history report on any vehicle you buy. Unfortunately, it is possible to spoof a VIN number and even forge a paper title; the process goes something like this.

A criminal acquires a car that was stolen, crashed, or otherwise devalued – let’s say a 1990s Honda Accord, one of the most stolen vehicles of all time. He finds an identical Accord and runs its VIN number to ensure a clean history, then he creates a fake VIN plate bearing that number and swaps it with the one on the stolen car. The thief acquires a fake title reflecting the new VIN, and presto: a stolen car can now be sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

That buyer will get a surprise when they try to insure the car, only to be told it’s actively insured by a different person – maybe even in another country. The car would eventually be confiscated, and the victim would have to sue the thief to recover their loss. We all know how difficult that can be.

Avoid this scenario by running a VIN check on any vehicle you plan to purchase. If the seller’s name doesn’t match the last registered owner of the car according to the check, if the name on the title is different, or if anything else seems odd to you, walk away.

Additional resources

It’s easy to tell if a vehicle is stolen before you buy it. Here’s how.
What happens if you buy a stolen vehicle without knowing it? Find out here.
Learn the dangers of title spoofing, or title washing, by reading this article.

VIN Trivia

Does Dominic Toretto’s Dodge Charger have a VIN?

It has two.

Is it possible to legally create a new VIN?

Yes! There are legitimate companies that produce new 17-digit VIN numbers for many purposes, including hobbyist kit cars and one-off custom builds. Companies like Dirt Legal can even acquire new VIN numbers for powersports toys – dirt bikes, ATVs, and golf carts to name a few.

Has a VIN number ever helped solve a crime?

Yes! Countless car thieves, title washing schemers, and everyday criminals are busted each year thanks to modern VIN reporting methods.

Devoted car enthusiasts are often tempted to violate the 25-year import law which exists in the United States. In short, this rule says that if a vehicle never passed US safety regulations (i.e., it was never sold new in the US) it cannot be legally imported into the United States until 25 years after the date of its manufacture. Upon entering the country, a vehicle’s VIN is compared to an extensive database; illegal imports are swiftly seized and destroyed.

Have any questions?

Title Gods specializes in anything related to car titles – contact us and we’ll be glad to answer any questions you have.

We offer a $10 VIN Check to help you make the best car buying decision possible. It provides the title history including previous accidents, claims, and other red flags on record along with many other helpful facts about the car. Be proactive in avoiding scammers – run a VIN check on every car you consider buying.

And remember, if something about a purchase doesn’t add up or gives you a funny feeling, walk away.

This article is not legal advice.