What Is Vin Etching and Does It Protect Your Car From Theft?

HELPLINE

What Is Vin Etching?

Although there are millions of cars out on the road, few car owners have heard of VIN etching. But, first things first. A VIN is a Vehicle Identification Number and is essentially the “social security number” of your vehicle. The unique 17-character code follows your car throughout its life and is typically noted on your vehicle registration, bill of sale, accident reports, and repair invoices.

Part of avoiding the purchase of a lemon is to learn what you can about the history of your potential car. If you’re in the market for a used car and want to learn about its ownership and repair history, you use the VIN to research the car with a service like CARFAX. And if you find yourself with a lemon, then there are several things you can do yourself to protect yourself while you build a case against the dealership that sold you the car.

A VIN is required under regulations administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA’s rationale is that a VIN is important for identifying vehicles that may be subject to recalls because of automotive defects. The Vehicle Identification Number is also used by law enforcement to identify stolen and recovered vehicles, and by insurance companies to identify the vehicles they are insuring.

According to NHTSA regulations, the VIN must be visible “through the vehicle’s glazing from the outside when the observer is adjacent to the left windshield pillar.” That’s a complicated way of saying that you need to be able to see the VIN when you peer through the driver’s side front windshield. If you look through yours, chances are good that you’ll see a narrow strip with the 17-character VIN. The NHTSA also says that the VIN needs to be on a certification label (usually on the edge of the driver’s door).

The Theft Prevention Standard, which was part of the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992, says that the VIN must be included in the following 18 parts of a motor vehicle:

1. Engine
2. Transmission
3. Right front fender
4. Left front fender
5. Hood
6. Right front door
7. Left front door
8. Right rear door (if present)
9. Left rear door (if present)
10. Sliding or cargo door(s)
11. Front bumper
12. Rear bumper
13. Right rear quarter panel (passenger cars)
14. Left rear quarter panel (passenger cars)
15. Right side assembly (multi-purpose vehicles)
16. Left side assembly (multi-purpose vehicles)
17. Pickup box and/or cargo box (light duty trucks)
18. Rear door(s), decklid, tailgate, or hatchback

With a thorough understanding of Vehicle Identification Numbers and where they are located, it’s time to delve into VIN etching. VIN etching is a process whereby a car’s VIN is essentially engraved into the vehicle’s windshield and windows. While there are do-it-yourself kits on the market, controversy arises over the practice of car dealerships forcing customers to pay for a VIN etching service when they buy new cars.

Why Is VIN Etching Important to Car Dealerships?

Sometimes car dealerships sell VIN etching as a warranty, saying that the buyer will receive a discount if the vehicle is stolen and deemed a total loss, although it can be argued that it is essentially an insurance service. Seekamp vs. It’s Huge, Inc. (U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York, Case No. 09-cv-00018-LEK-DRH) is a class action lawsuit that alleges that Fuccillo Automotive Group and Universal Automotive Services knew that the sale of VIN etching “insurance” was deceptive.

The value of VIN etching as a theft deterrent doesn’t appear to be backed up by statistics, but car dealerships routinely incorporate fees for VIN etching into new car purchases. Conceivably, charging customers for this is a way to increase car dealers’ profits at the time of the sale.

Car dealerships handle VIN etching in a number of different ways. For example, a car dealer might offer it as an option, similar to a car alarm, and charge for it. Alternately, a car dealer might include it as a line item on the bill of sale, implying that VIN etching is required. When this happens, only the savviest consumers understand that they can opt-out. In fact, ConsumerReports.org lists VIN etching in “Buying Unnecessary Extras” under their “10 Common Car-Buying Mistakes.” ConsumerReports.org says, “If you decide you want VIN etching, you can buy a kit to do it yourself for less than $25, instead of the $200 that some dealerships charge.”

Other times, however, a car dealership might disguise VIN etching as a warranty. That is alleged in the class action lawsuit, Seekamp vs. It’s Huge, Inc. (U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York, Case No. 09-cv-00018-LEK-DRH). The suit alleges that Fuccillo Hyundai in Schenectady, New York, sold Seekamp a $295 warranty for VIN etching service. Allegedly, Seekamp was told that, if her vehicle was stolen and then judged to be unrecoverable or a total loss, the warranty would provide her with $2,000 toward buying a replacement car. Seekamp says that she was told that all of the dealership’s vehicles come with VIN etching and that she was required to purchase the warranty as part of the sale.

The class-action lawsuit makes the argument that the New York State Insurance Department considers these services to be insurance policies, and that the law says sellers must be licensed to sell insurance in New York. The car dealership allegedly sold the insurance through a company that wasn’t licensed to sell insurance in New York, and that to get around this law, the dealership told buyers that the service was a “warranty.”

Does VIN Etching Prevent Car Theft?

The primary rationale for VIN etching is that it is a theft deterrent. When a car is stolen, it’s typically “chopped” in order to sell its component parts. Proponents of VIN etching say that a vehicle’s windshield and window are valuable and that VIN etching makes these parts less profitable to a potential thief, who will (in theory) instead steal a vehicle without VIN etching.

This is a bit counterintuitive. First, VIN etching isn’t particularly eye-catching, and it seems farfetched that a thief would immediately look for – or be able to see – VIN etching (particularly at night). He may see a large decal that announces that the car has VIN etching and then avoid stealing it; if that’s the case, it may be more valuable to have a decal than the actual etching.

Second, it makes more sense that other strategies would be more effective in deterring car theft. For example, there is an array of common sense behaviors (don’t leave your keys in the ignition; park near the entrance of your destination, where foot traffic will be higher; don’t leave valuables in plain sight; lock your car; park in a garage) that take your car out of contention as an easy target. There are also myriad devices you can use, such as car alarms, steering wheel locks, smart keys, and hidden switches. And, of course, you can always stick on ominous sounding decals that would make a would-be thief think twice.

In addition, there don’t seem to be any statistics to back up the claim that vehicles with VIN etching are stolen less often than other types of auto theft deterrence.

A secondary rationale is that having VIN etching reduces your insurance premiums. It appears that some insurers do offer a discount in some states. However, several consumers on online discussion boards reported that the savings were six dollars over six months. Others reported that their insurance companies said that the consumers already had the maximum discounts allowable and that VIN etching wouldn’t provide additional savings.

If VIN etching is of questionable value, why do car dealerships promote the practice? While some state laws mandate that car dealers provide the service, no state mandates that consumers purchase it. It appears that, although do-it-yourself kits VIN etching kits are readily available starting at twenty dollars, dealers often charge between $100 and $300 for the service.

Sometimes car dealerships sell VIN etching as a warranty, saying that the buyer will receive a discount if the vehicle is stolen and deemed a total loss, although it can be argued that the offer is essentially an insurance service. Seekamp vs. It’s Huge, Inc. (U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York, Case No. 09-cv-00018-LEK-DRH) is a class action lawsuit that alleges that Fuccillo Automotive Group and Universal Automotive Services knew that the sale of VIN etching “insurance” was deceptive.

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