What happens if the VIN on the car and the VIN on the title don’t match? This is called a VIN mismatch, and a title that shows the wrong VIN number is usually a major red flag – usually. This is often a sign of theft or other fraudulent activity, but a minor difference could be nothing more than a simple mistake by someone long ago.
The Title Gods staff has encountered VIN mismatches on several occasions, so to help illustrate this problem we’re going to tell you a few stories from our personal experience vault. If you’re not sure what a VIN number is or what one does, you can find out by reading this article next.
There are two extremes of a VIN number mismatch. At one end a single digit could be wrong; that's easily fixed at the DMV. At the other end, the entire VIN sequence doesn’t match between the car and the title. This is a huge red flag, a clear sign to walk away from the deal.
A Minor VIN Mismatch
A few months ago I went to purchase a 1979 Chevrolet Corvette from a private party on Craigslist. It was the cheapest running, driving, undamaged 4-speed manual L-82 Corvette I’ve ever seen – if that was gibberish to you, just know this car was one hell of a find. The seller and I looked at the title together and noticed that the VIN on the title had a B where the car’s VIN number had an 8. Huge red flag, right? Nope.
We reasoned that someone must have made a mistake decades ago, possibly when the car was first titled way back in 1979. This misprint probably went unnoticed for the last 40 years. But how? The incorrect VIN sequence was close enough that it plugged into the system for insurance companies and the DMV. That won’t always be the case – this Corvette had a lucky go.
I still bought the car. I found an online VIN decoder for this year of Corvette (here) and discovered the digit in question could only be a number, not a letter. It was obvious a simple mistake had occurred sometime far in the past. Additionally, both versions of the VIN had clean histories and the seller was a local resident I knew to be trustworthy. The whole deal checked out.
I needed to fix the VIN. This simply involved going to the DMV and speaking to an agent. I provided a photo of the car’s VIN plate, a screenshot of the VIN decoder, and the title itself. They charged me a small fee to correct the error during the usual registration process. I received a corrected title in my name in only a few weeks, with no added delay. Easy-peasy.
What's a VIN decoder? One of the handiest things ever made.
A Major VIN Mismatch
One of our staffers – we’ll call him Joe – recently tried to buy a Honda motorcycle from a private party on Craigslist. At the meet, the seller told stories that implied he had owned the bike for several years. He seemed well-versed on its problems and performance, so Joe decided to buy. The seller produced the title in haste, trying to move the sale quickly, but Joe noticed the VIN on the title was different from the one on the motorcycle. Not kinda wrong, very wrong.
It was clear this title belonged to a different bike. As if that wasn’t already obvious, the year printed on the build sticker on the motorcycle’s frame did not match the year printed on the title. The gig was up.
Joe called the seller out. He explained that the VIN numbers didn’t match, then asked if the seller had perhaps confused the titles to two different bikes. The seller treated the issue as no big deal: “It never caused me a problem man, it’s good. I promise this bike is great man. It’s not stolen or anything.” Joe politely walked away from the deal.
Joe was not alone. This is a prime example of why it’s important to always bring a friend when meeting a person off Craigslist. The encounter could have gone a lot worse for Joe had he been there alone.
The seller showed all his cards. He basically confessed to selling a stolen bike. A victim of motorcycle theft himself, Joe called the police about the encounter. The outcome is anybody’s guess, but selling stolen property is often billed as a felony. So there you go.
I once got scammed even harder than that, and I actually fell for it. Whoops.
How to Protect Yourself from a VIN Mismatch
Buying a car with the wrong VIN is generally a bad idea. As a buyer, the best way to protect yourself is to follow these easy steps when buying a car:
- Before the meet, run a VIN check on the vehicle
- At the meet, compare the title’s VIN and the car’s VIN digit for digit
- Use your discretion to decide whether a mismatch could be a transcription mistake
- Consult an online VIN decoder to determine the correct format
- If the VIN is way wrong, walk away from the deal
To save time, ask for the VIN early. See if the seller will send you photos of the title and the car’s VIN number before the meet. This will save you a trip and any dangers or pressure from a potential scammer. If the seller won’t provide these things before the sale, that’s a red flag.
The car’s VIN could be wrong, too. A known fraud tactic is switching the VIN plate on a stolen car for another one. Following the steps above will help protect you from this.
We’re a small group of title specialists dedicated to combating title fraud. We offer a quick $10 Vin Check so you can buy with confidence. This minimal investment will reveal the last registered owner and any red-flag items like liens or theft reports. Buy one now or bookmark it for later:
Our specialty is title recovery, and our staff is well-versed in all manner of title issues. If you encountered a strange situation and need to ask someone about it, or if you have questions about VIN mismatches or any other title topic, have us call you for a no-obligation chat.
Cover image, Corvette and Honda photos courtesy of the author's Instagram