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   Inside Out - West Midlands: Monday January 10, 2005


Different cars - matching number plates

Have you ever been sent a parking fine from somewhere you've never been to? Or how about a speeding ticket even though your car was off the road? If so you may have become the latest victim of car cloning.

Inside Out's Ashley Blake investigates this escalating crime which is proving extremely difficult to police.

To buy legal registration plates for your car you need your log book, driver's licence and proof of address.

Yet plates sold for show use can now be bought on the internet or over the phone and no documentation is required.

With no proof needed, any registration number can be ordered meaning any car can be cloned.

The car can then be used by criminals who rack up parking fines, speeding tickets and more importantly, use them to commit crimes.

Wake-up call with a difference

John Cahill
"I jumped out of bed, looked out of the window and there was someone pointing a gun at me - it puts the fear of God in you."
John Cahill

John Cahill became a victim of car cloning, but it wasn't a parking fine that landed on his doorstep, it was an armed police squad.

John's car had supposedly been used as a getaway vehicle in an armed robbery, making John the prime suspect.

With the house surrounded by armed officers, John was eventually escorted to the police station.

John was released after five hours when police confirmed his alibi.

They now knew that another cloned car was out on the road.

On the increase

Incidents of car cloning are reported daily and with 10,000 cloned cars already on the streets, operations run by the West Midlands police are vital in attempting to curb the problem.

The police use a system called automated number plate recognition (ANPR).

Cameras in the back of a van read film each car registration plate as it passes and run the details through the police computer.

The system identifies the driver's address, whether the car has been registered as stolen or identify if it is a clone.

Inside Out was invited to film with the police on one of their operations. It wasn't long before the ANPR van spotted a suspected clone.

Van with ANPR cameras
The ANPR system processes information about each car

Close scrutiny

By examining various ID markers on the vehicle, PC Ian Rollason confirms that the van is genuine which means that there is another vehicle sporting an identical number plate.

"There's another vehicle on the road and sooner or later we're going to get the right car," promises Ian.

"It's listed and we'll keep going until we find it."

This is little consolation to the innocent van owner who could face being pulled over for inspection regularly until the cloned vehicle is caught.

Pick a number

Car cloning is based on getting hold of false number plates. Inside Out's investigation shows this is easier to do then you'd like to imagine.

"Number plates can be bought over the internet, at markets. There's a market available for these types of items and people will buy them."
PC Ian Rollason

A website based in Ireland is able to provide plates of any licence without documentation because it is outside of UK law.

Yet Inside Out found a company in England also selling plates without asking for the relevant documents. The company are selling the plates for show use only. But once the plates are bought, the owner can use them for whatever they want.

Inside Out reporter Ashley Blake purchases a licence plate from each company with the only information requested being the address to send the plates to, the registration number he would like and of course, his credit card number.

Since filming, the DVLA have been made aware of this story and are preparing to investigate.

West Midlands police admit that fighting this latest car crime menace is proving tough.

"Unscrupulous people will change number plates on cars for criminal activities to escape prosecution," explains PC Rollason.

Put to the test

Another victim of car cloning is a little closer to home as an Inside Out producer receives an £80 London parking fine. The only problem is he was filming in Birmingham on the day the fine was issued.

It quickly becomes clear that he's become the latest victim of car cloning.

The car in London was the same make, model, colour and of course had identical number plates.

By using a photocopy of his tax disk, Inside Out is able to prove that the car that was parked illegally was in fact a clone because the number on the tax disc was different.

PC Ian Rollason
PC Ian Rollason admits it is a problem Police are finding difficult to control

Inside Out's investigation wasn't finished here.

Using his colleague's car which he knows has been cloned, Ashley puts the police's ANPR system to the test.

Motorcycle police are dispatched almost as soon as Ashley drives past the camera and his vehicle is pulled over for inspection.

PC Ian Rollason is able to use the chassis number to confirm that Ashley's car has the correct licence plate.

So, the system works but somewhere out on the road, the cloned car is still undetected.


Without legislation to prevent these plates being sold in the first place, the police are left to rely on the ANPR camera and the 50/50 chance that the car they pull over is the cloned vehicle rather than the genuine one.

"I'd like to say the problem is under control, but I'd be misleading you there," admits Ian.

With car cloning escalating and the police seemingly powerless to prevent the sale of false plates, could you be the next victim of cloning and be accused of a crime you didn't commit?

See also ...

BBC Motoring
BBC Topgear

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Mr Thomson
We (my wife and I) to cut a long story short were in london enjoying a meal and cinema at the time we were supposed to have been illegally parked somewhere we have never been! The worrying thing is not only has someone else got our licence plate number we were unable to have the fine dropped as it appears they must also have our tax disk details as well! No one else above has mentioned this! We were forced to pay even though we have reciepts to show we were elsewhere!!! Has anyone else experienced Tax disk cloning or are we able to clone ourselves and be in two places at once or as the nice lady at the Council put in a round about way we must be Lying Criminal masterminds!

Judith Hanna-Clements
I received a speeding ticket from Belper, I knew I had never been to Belper. I contacted the police, luckily, there was a photograph, which clearly showed it was not my car. The police cancelled the speeding ticket and told me they would be in touch if they caught the other driver, but never have. That was July last year. I just hope they never commit a serious offense?

I found your articel on car cloning very interesting. I have just read Mr J Mair's comments. I am in the middle of a similar situation as he was in. I have an old car which has been off the road and parked on my drive for over 6 months. This car does not start. I received through a post a letter telling me I was being accused of reckless driving in this vehicle (in a place I had never heard of, which incidently was spelt incorrectly!). I called the West Midlands Police who told me to write in, which I did. I didnt hear anything back so I called again. I then wrote again to tell them it was not me but they do not seem to acknowlege anything. They sent out the original letter recorded delivery and it was an important letter, but when you tell them it was not you driving they lose interest. It is very annoying and completely unfair when you are innocent of what you are being accused of and you are actually the victim yourself.

John Peterson
An interesting program, especially the admission that the problem is out of control, but it failed to cover two important points. Firstly, the real cause of the cloning epidemic: the proliferation of traffic cameras. Secondly, what is the penalty for having a cloned registration – is it less than, say, a speeding fine? Sure, your plates might be cloned for use in an armed robbery, but it's much more likely that the first you hear of it the when an NIP lands on your mat because a camera has taken a picture of something with your number on it. Borrowing someone else's number is just one step up from obscuring your plates – and how common is that now?

terry cann
after watching the program last night i can only assume i was the victim of car cloning. on 11 march 2002 i was notified by the royal borough of kensington and chelsea that my honda accord vehicle had been parked illegally in a taxi rank in kings road at 1550 hours on 14 august 2001. the letter informed me that the penalty charge, of £80, had not been paid and that if it was not forthcoming by 08 april 2002 the penalty would be increased to £120. i was warned if no payment was forwarded they may issue a county court order and put the case in the hands of bailiffs who would then add their own costs to the penalty charge. after sending a number of letters to and receiving responses from the borough of kensington and chelsea at po box 4294,worthing, bn14 8fd, i was informed that the charge would not be pursued on this occasion. the point was i had never been in london on that date (14 aug 2001) but the worrying thing is that my car is a clone and something similar could happen again

In other countries they use the number plates as licence plates; no need for tax discs. This ensures that the plates are legally controlled. It may cost to change the system in this country but it would be much more practical than identy cards! Tony

Roger Nolan
Raise awareness, have a "CATCH A CLONER" campaign. The police would probably be pleased to offer an attractive cash reward to anyone who can draw a policeman's attention to any vehicle where the number on the TAX DISC does not match the vehicle's REGISTRATION NUMBER on it's number plates.

kath lewin
our car was cloned in 1987 we had parking fines from london which at that time we had never been to the onle time we used our car was to go th birmingham to look after my mother the fines just kept comming we have a photo of our car and the wtite up saysthat the cloned car was in a accedent with a taxi in london that was the end of the parking tickets

Simon Walls
As I understand it, in the USA, a car's number plate has a sticker affixed to it, bearing a month and year, which is obtained at every tax renewal, much like the tax disc we use. With this system, if a car is cloned it couldn't have the "validity sticker", as it is only found on the bona fide car. The police cameras could then detect the absence of the validity sticker or an incorrect date (ie. a fabricated one) and pull over any car without such. So you catch the criminal not the innocent. Of course, a mere 'sticker' is not very secure, a version which is difficult to forge would be needed. Perhaps a serial number which is related to the car's number plate via a hash (a one-way secret scrambling function). It would be easy for police cameras to validate this in real-time. My knowledge of the American system is not exhaustive, but if the authorities thoroughly investigated it, they could formulate a good, secure system.

Mrs Kamla Jalota
I dont know if the following is along the lines of the crimes above, but my mother-in-law who lives in Birmingham, received a speeding fine for an offence committed in the West Midlands on 9th December by a car registered under her name and address. However, she (74 years old) has never driven in her life, and does not own a car, and therefore has no car registered under her name either at her residential address where she lives with my father-in-law nor any other address. My father-in-law is about to return the document with the appropriate section filled in, but it raises concern regarding how her name and address are registered at the DVLA.

Frederick Hunt
Hi Ashley, Ref. ways of stopping cloning would be to adopt the way the German system works. 1. Each number plate is only issued by the equivalent of the DVLA office or it's area delegated agents. 2. Each number plate carries the tax disc expiry date on it.(You have to take your number plates into the tax office to get it re stamped every year when the tax is paid). 3 An additional benefit to this system is that the number plate also carries a stamp of the expiry date of the German TUF(MOT). Both stamps cannot be removed without destroying them. This might seem very confusing costly, or time consuming but I can assure you that it is not. Having lived and used this system in Germany takes no longer than going to the post office in England to get you tax disc.( Apart from unscrewing the number plates from the car. I don't mind getting my hands dirty.) England could also be the first to adopt a stamp on the number plate as proof of insurance. Think what a benefit this would be to the police,all the information they need at one glance.Worth thinking about?. No doubt suggestion like these from the general public will fall on deaf ears at the Department of Transport and the DVLA. as unworkable and too costly, but it does work and there could be vast cost savings involved.

gary gennard
i received a speeding ticket from a camara which was 30 miles away from where my car was parked at the time ...i had to drive to stafford to prove my innocence...when the car was photographed from various positions i was eventually "let off" a few weeks later i was followed down the road by a motorcycle policeman who eventually pulled me over...he asked me if i knew why id been pulled i replied yes because my car has been cloned ..after a check it was proved the car was mine and i had not committed a crime i was allowed to go. i few weeks previous to this i had a visit from the local pc telling me my car had been recovered i was a bit suprised because i could see my car on the car park in front off our is nice to no that the police are trying to stop others having to put up with the emmbarresment i have had to

Mr J Mair
I have just watched your programme on car cloning and I believe that I also was a victim too of this crime. Last year I received a letter from the West Midlands Police asking for my wherabouts on March the 23rd 2004. I contacted the police officer back on the letter twice to no prevail, however I did leave a telephone message asking for a call back to discuss this situation further as I was not sure what I was fully being accused of. However after a period of 6 weeks I called again and left again another message, still no reply. A few weeks later I had forgot all about this and a summons appeared through my door for me to appear in court. The charges against me were for Reckless Driving/Endangerment to other road users and leaving the scene of an accident without leaving any information. With this I was very shocked and certainley annoyed that I never received any response from the West Mildnads police in reference to any of my calls. However at this point I felt it necessary to contact and instruct my solicitor to investigate this further. In the meantime it went to Magistrates court and was adjourned pending my plea (which weas not Guilty)and witness information, which meant i would have to attend Crown Court. To put you in the picture I run a distribution company in Coventry and on the day of the alleged crime which I was supposed to of committed I was supposed to of been on the A45 Birmingham junction of M42 at 7.15 am. I was no where near this area due to me having a contract in Rugby Warwickshire on this day. I also had this contract in writing and witnesses from Contractors confirming that I was no where near the A45 and was in Rugby on the day of the allegations. Also i have a 12 years old son at the time who does not leave for school till 8.00 am and I never leave before then. How could I possibly be on the A45 at 7.15 am, some 18 miles away on the 23rd March 2004. Over a period of weeks this cost me a considerable amount of legal costs to which obviously the solicitor had to charge. My solicitor was also shocked at how far this had been taken with no evidance from the Police. Secondly the Crown Prosectution refused to look at any of our evidence until it went to Crown Court. This could of bankrupt me and also given me a criminal record. Luckily for me in the month of November 2004 my solicitor was working in Birmingham on another case and had spoken to someone with authority to have a look at the evidence presented by the CPU. He was appaulled that this case had too many holes in this case and could not believe it had even got this far.!!! Once he had looked he asked the Crown Prosecution to have a look at the evidence so far collected against me and asked for the case to be withdrawn instantly. Luckily for me it was withdrawn and all charges were to be dropped and all my expenses were to be paid from central funds. My solictors cost were £145 p/hour + VAT for the time spent on my case. The CPU would only pay £105 + VAT per hour which created a shortfall. Thus I had to pay the remainder of the balance!! I did not commit this crime and I have now been a victim to it and lost out on money including time out of work visiting the solicitors. I also want to add here how much money of the TAX Payers are having to fund crimes like this and they are innocent. Something should be done in the Legislation to try and stop this happening to lots of other innocent people like myself. I am one of the lucky ones who never got charged with the crime but i could of and this would of lost me my business and maybe I could of ended up in Prison.

Mrs S kirk
My vehicle was cloned in Nottingham having visited there once. I received three traffic offences and a parking fine. On the second traffic offence I was actually on an emergency exercise with West Midlands Police.After obtaining a copy of the signing in sheets for the exercise and forwarding them to Nottinghamshire Police all charges were dropped for the traffic offences. I then had the job of proving my innocence with Nottinghamshire County Council and after sending in a copy of my Tax Disc I received a letter some 8 weeks later to tell me my fine void. This whole affair caused some a lot of sleepless nights and today I still am afraid of what might drop through the letter box.

shirley holt
i think when you pass your test you should be given a personal number plate which is incorported in your licence in code like your date of birth is and you keep that number for all of your life moving it from car to car when you buy new ones.

David Rees Morse
I have received a penalty charge notice for being in a bus lane, in London, during the hours of operation that is, in Camden Road Junction with Sandall Road NW1 on 17/12/2003 at 0853. The photgraphs supplied are not very clear but I can see that the make is the same but the model is NOT. At the time of the alleged offence I was the driver of an ambulance carrying disabled passengers in my home town Cheltenham. My vehicle was in the garage at my home. I have supplied "Transport for London" with all the necessary information including a photcopy of my vehicle V5. I am looking forward to their reply.

Mel B
Very interesting programme but you can actually purchase numbers and backgrounds from any supplier in the UK and abroad either in person or by using the internet. It is possible also to use a C.A.D program to make your own using easily obtainable plastic, failing that people actually just steal your number plates from a vehicle which actually happened to a member of my family. What is more interesting is the use of Community Support Officers who you featured twice in the item. These people have no powers, no training and no responsibilities in this area, so why are they being used in this role by West Midland s Police? Inside out would do better to ‘investigate’ this third rate ‘policing on the cheap’ and /or misuse of civilian staff for purposes far outside their intended use. Mel

Hayley O'Donnell
I am a victim of car cloning. A car reversed into the drivers side of my car, but the car drove off. I felt fortunate, as i had witnesses and had got the cars registration details. the incident was reported to the police, but turned out that the car was a cloned car, i ended up paying for my car to be repaired, costing me £350!

Peter Barnsley
With all the cameras dotted around the country surely we could adapt some of these, and link them to a central database which would notify the police if it found a match for a cloned car. For example, most petrol stations already use number plate recognition technology - it would be extremely simple to link this up centrally. Alternatively we now have thousands of speed cameras on most main roads in the country. Instead of catching harmless unsuspecting drivers, surely we could target the real criminals?

Jon Whiten
There is a widespread system in place that could be extended to track cloned vehicles. The Trafficmaster sensors on the motorway, as well as Truvelo speed cameras, do indeed read car number plates. These systems could be used to flag-up whenever a unique numberplate was detected more than once in a short period over to far a distance (2 triggers over 10 miles apart in 5 minutes, or some such) could flag-up the possibility of a clone. If this ws flagged up on the DVLA database, this could be passed onto the Police _whenever_ they check that specific number and the necessary further checks performed. This improves the odds of detection in favour of the law-abiding public.

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