Stolen car. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Stolen car. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

ACCORDING to estimates released by the South African Insurance Crime Bureau, vehicles worth R8.5bn are stolen in SA each year. Almost 30% of these (worth about R4.9bn) make it across our borders, about R3.1bn worth remain behind (and are cloned), while vehicles worth R514m end up in local chop shops.

Surprisingly, only 39,000 vehicles reappeared in the insurance sector’s system last year, a drop in the bucket considering the theft statistics.

Where are the rest of the cloned vehicles — 61,000 out of an estimated 100,000 on our roads?

According to the South African Police Service and insurance forensic investigators, a vehicle for which thieves have copied the vehicle identification number from a legally owned car and applied it to a stolen vehicle of the same make and model, is difficult to detect.

This is because everything appears to be normal until the vehicle is used in a crime or involved in an accident and further investigation of its identification documents is required.

A 2008 Toyota Yaris T3 was up for auction after it was deemed uneconomical to repair after being involved in an accident in 2012.

At first everything seemed to be in order.

The Yaris was financed by a reputable financing company and insured with a well-known insurer. It also had all the "original" legal documents required.

But when the salvaging company tried to "dealer stock" the car in its name, it was advised that the Yaris was registered in Bloemfontein, and that the registration certificate the company had been reported stolen by a vehicle licensing office in Gauteng.

The investigating officers tracked down the legal owner of the Yaris — he resided in Mthatha and was able to prove ownership of the car he bought in Bloemfontein.

While the original owner was fortunate to find his stolen car, this had huge financial implications for the insurer and the salvaging company.

The insurer had already settled the claim, and the salvaging company could not put the vehicle up for auction.

Crime syndicates buy wrecked vehicles for cloning at auctions, despite the fact that salvage auctions leave a definite paper trail that can be traced back to a legitimate buyer.

Other methods syndicates use to steal the identity of a vehicle include illegally obtaining eNatis records of vehicles that were legally exported from the country by vehicle manufacturers or foreigners, and "hijacking" the live records and registration details of financed vehicles.

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DATA sharing between the Financial Intelligence Centre, National Prosecuting Authority, the police, the Asset Forfeiture Unit, the Road Accident Fund, the Department of Transport, financing companies and insurers can play an important role in the prevention and early detection of vehicle cloning.

SA still has a few hurdles to jump to achieve adequate data sharing.

It is curbed by the strict requirements of the Protection of Personal Information Act, which is why the South African Insurance Crime Bureau is managing all data-sharing initiatives.

Consumers can help insurers, financing companies and the authorities to identify and prevent illegal activities such as vehicle cloning by buying vehicles from reputable dealers and refusing to buy used cars without a service book or owner’s manual.

Buyers should check that the vehicle identification number and chassis numbers of a vehicle match and that there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that these numbers have been tampered with.

Potential buyers should also check that the vehicle has two sets of keys and that the keys for the doors and the ignition correlate.

They should refuse to buy a vehicle with damage to the locks or ignition system.

The best way to avoid buying a cloned car is by trying to avoid paying cash for a used vehicle, especially when dealing with private sellers who cannot prove that the vehicle is registered in their names, or who fail to provide proof of residence.

• Nair is a claims specialist at Centriq Insurance.

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