An Experian employee we'll call Scott Jones (not his real name) forgot to lock his car one night. It turned out to be a night when someone was trolling his neighborhood, checking car doors. If it was locked, the person moved on. Finding Scott's car door unlocked, the thief took advantage, stealing his work ID, which included his photo and his name, and his car registration card.
Scott's car was still there but that morning but he quickly realized he had a big problem on his hands: Our cars carry a lot of personally identifiable information (PII) and vehicle-related PII can lead to myriad types of fraud.
Dude, Where's My PII?
Thieves use stolen Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN), for example, in a variety of ways: to register stolen vehicles, when looking for insurance claims on totaled vehicles, and even to make duplicate keys for your car. The VIN is like your vehicle's Social Security number: it makes that vehicle unique against others of the same make and model. Thieves can use a single VIN to register dozens of vehicles. Unfortunately, you won't know this has happened unless you need to use the number; for example, if you move to another state or change insurance.
Armed with your vehicle registration information (and often proof of insurance information), thieves will go to car dealerships to test drive a new model. They hand over the stolen vehicle PII and drive away—without returning. The information associates you with the missing car. Identity thieves will also use vehicle PII on car loans, so you get the debt and they get the car.
Scott says he worries about the thief building a synthetic ID by piecing together his information with other data. The same thing has happened to other people in his neighborhood, too.
"Even working at Experian, I forgot to follow up," Scott admits. "I haven't seen anything pop up on my Experian IdentityWorks account."—which provides alerts when new inquiries or accounts are added to your credit report—"but it is just odd."
Avoiding Vehicle Identity Theft
After the initial shock wore off, Scott checked his state's DMV website which revealed he had to file a police report, in person, before he could apply for a new registration card. (If he got pulled over before his replacement card arrived, the police said a quick run of his license plate would show that his car was indeed registered.)
Vehicle PII theft is common, the police told Scott, and often preventable. Here are four steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim:
1. Lock Your Car
Thieves are looking for easy access, and an unlocked car is the easiest access of all. Don't forget to take your keys with you!
2. Lock Your Glove Box
Thieves know where you keep important paperwork in your vehicle. A locked glove box adds another layer of difficulty and they'll probably move on to the next car.
3. Don't Leave Valuables in the Car
Don't treat your car like your office. In other words, your car isn't the place to keep your laptop, smartphone, sensitive paperwork, or anything else that could result in serious harm to you if stolen. The less you stash in the car, the less for thieves to steal.
4. Be Smart About Parking
If you have a garage, use it for your vehicle. If you don't have a garage, park close to the house or in well-lit areas.
Vehicles have always been a favorite target for thieves, but it's also important to protect the information we store inside the glove box. The car itself can be replaced. Your identity, however, could suffer for years to come.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on May 25, 2018, and has been updated.