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VIN Decoding

Learn how VIN decoding protects car owners.

A VIN number contains 17 characters and reveals unique information about a vehicle. [© Jupiter Images, 2009]
© Jupiter Images, 2009
A VIN number contains 17 characters and reveals unique information about a vehicle.

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.

VIN History

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.

Finding the VIN

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 Decoding

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:

  • World manufacturer's identification (WMI) (1-3 character positions). The first character in this sequence represents the country of the vehicle's manufacturer. The WMI is known as the manufacturer identifier. Some country characters are letters, and some are numbers. The United States is numbers 1 or 4. For the second character, a letter or number is assigned to represent the automobile's manufacturer. For example, Chrysler is C and Cadillac is 6. The third character represents the vehicle type or the manufacturing section. However, the WMI is only used for large manufacturers. Smaller manufacturers must use a different code and positions 12 through 14 in the sequence.
  • Vehicle description section (VDS) (5 characters in positions 4 through 8). These characters identify different components in the car, such as brake system and body style.
  • VIN accuracy check digit. This single character is based on a mathematical formula that checks the other characters for accuracy. Basically, it is a guard against typographical errors.
  • Vehicle identification section (VIS) (10-17 characters). Model year is position 10 and the vehicle's assembly plant is position 11. Characters 12 through 17 are a unique sequence, like DNA. They number vehicles in a specific grouping within the manufacturer's production facility.


VIN Fraud

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.

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