Learn how VIN decoding protects car owners.
VIN decoding gives a consumer a vehicle's history. VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number, the number that is etched permanently on the vehicle. A VIN can be thought of as a vehicle's fingerprint or DNA -- the vehicle's unique identifier.
VIN numbers contain 17 characters. According to law, the VIN must appear on a part of the vehicle that won't be removed. Each character in the VIN must be either a letter from the full alphabet or a number from 0 through 9.
The numbers and letters in the VIN are not just random characters, however. They tell a detailed story about the vehicle, from the country in which the vehicle was manufactured to the specific assembly line. Consumers can use a vehicle's VIN number to track down its insurance history and determine if the vehicle was involved in any traffic accidents.
According to the National Transportation Library, the U.S. Department of Transportation does not maintain a database of VIN numbers. However, several Web sites do. Consumers can use these Web sites to determine a vehicle's history. First, however, they must be able to decode their vehicle's VIN, which is easier than people might think. Individuals simply need to understand what the characters mean.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service states that VIN numbers have existed since 1954, when American automobile manufacturers started using sequences to track the cars they made. The first VINs were not systematic, however, and varied by manufacturer.
This changed in 1969, when a law required that cars have visible VIN numbers. The current 17-character sequence dates to an expansion of this rule in 1976. Beginning in 1981, all cars had to contain the 17-character VIN. VIN numbers could not be repeated for a 30-year period. It was believed this would ensure that each VIN was unique. The objective of the VIN was to decrease auto thefts, improve auto recalls and track insurance history.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service explains that until 1967, VIN numbers could be located anywhere. After this, North American automobile manufacturers had to place the VIN number in a spot that could be seen from outside the car. The left side of the dash is the most common location. Decode This explains that the VIN is often printed on the frame to preserve it in the event of fire.
VIN characters are used in several ways, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some characters refer to specific parts of the vehicle while others relate to a code provided by the manufacturer.
Some Web sites offer free VIN decoding. Ford Motor Company publishes a detailed guide to VIN decoding. Vehicle Identification Number - VIN Numbers also publishes codes for manufacturers and countries.
The 17-character VIN is divided into four parts:
There are two common methods of VIN fraud. One is destroying the VIN to avoid detection by law enforcement. The other is called vehicle cloning, in which criminals change the VIN to alter the automobile's history.