Published in The APB
March Issue, 2010
Effective Database Tools Help Investigators
Solve Vehicle-Related Crimes
Philip J. Crepeau
Anti-Fraud Program Advisor
CARCO Group Inc.
January 17, 2010
At no time in the history of law enforcement and related investigative disciplines has the convergence of technology, information management and data distribution been as significant and productive as it is today. Aided by technology, the analysis of data – the human factor – performed by trained, skilled investigators, is more likely to produce results than ever before. Digital technology has literally revolutionized the way information is obtained, processed, managed, stored, shared and used in the pursuit of criminals who successfully pocket billions of dollars each year through vehicle-related crimes including a host of insurance fraud schemes. As law enforcement professionals have learned over many years, information is their most potent weapon.
In law enforcement, as well as all aspects of business, industry, science, medicine and education, information has become the undisputed foundation of the investigative process, with the power and speed of computers and specialized database systems at the forefront.
On its own, information is valuable. Derived through single or multiple specialized database systems, however, connected via the now robust digital information highways, law enforcement and insurance industry investigative tools enable trained specialists to acquire essential information faster and more reliably than ever before. Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed since the early 1970's, when vehicle pre-insurance inspection reports were accompanied by Polaroid photos, is the necessary training and experience of the investigator – the foundation of any successful crime probe. In the vehicle crime arena, as a case in point, given the skills and experience to evaluate data, the abilities of the various database systems serving as gatekeepers of precious bits and pieces of information related to virtually every motor vehicle in the nation, the current array of crime solving tools that can be useful in pursuing criminals involved in vehicle-related crimes including the now widespread “Cloned vehicle” and “flood car” crimes is awesome.
So what are these databases, where are they, what type of information in contained, how are they accessed and how are they employed in the pursuit of the growing ranks of sophisticated criminals involved in vehicle-related crimes? With insurance fraud representing billions of dollars each year in pay-outs – a cost borne principally by the motoring public in the form of increased insurance rates – with a large percentage of claims clearly fraudulent, the role of investigators and the importance of the technology tools available to them is extremely important.
For the past few decades, as an example of the scope of vehicle-related crime, the dollar value of losses reported each year in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports as Major Property Crime Losses has averaged a little more than $15 Billion per year, of which about half, or close to $8 Billion, can be attributed to vehicle theft. In the opinion of many law enforcement professionals, between 15- to- 20 percent, or more, is attributable to fraudulent insurance claims.
In investigating suspicious claims a variety of processes or approaches come into play, many beginning with data searches performed through databases developed and maintained by a number of organizations.
The Digital Database
“Databases” are not all the same and, in fact, can be quite different. Although the widely used term is often used as a catchall for any type of information archive, there are many classifications for database systems based on their technical attributes, content, and what they are designed to do. And while the common denominator is that they all involve the storage and selected uses of information, the systems can be significantly different.
In general, a database is an integrated assortment of records, logically related and assembled into a collection of information that provides data for a single application and/or multiple uses. Classification can be based on content and/or the examination of various models or architectures. The various database gatekeeper organizations that serve the investigative community in the vehicle crime arena may have a variety of features tailored to the focus of the services that the organization provides or to the requirements of its clients.
Addressing the special needs of law enforcement investigators and insurance industry SIU’s involved in vehicle-related crime investigations, the CARCO Group, headquartered in Holtsville, NY, as an example, has developed over many years a powerful, sophisticated database system that performs numerous functions, beginning with automatically checking the authenticity of any Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) entered into the system, to verify that the VIN and vehicle match. The inspection program was originally mandated in a number of states as a defense against serious “paper car” problems.
The company’s highly refined database, evolved and refined over more than thirty years, enables investigators to pursue suspicious claims and easily access a spectrum of information about an inspected vehicle. The field-proven physical inspection process, with photographs, is deemed by investigators and insurance industry professionals to be one of the most effect ways to reduce fraudulent insurance pay-outs. The combination of the inspection report and visual documentation provides following information:
Photographs of the vehicle.
Close-up of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Label, frequently called the EPA Label.
People responsible for having the vehicle inspected: names of driver and owner.
Date and time of inspection.
Location of the inspection site.
Name of insurance carrier(s).
Mileage shown on odometer.
Notes any existing damage.
Existing options and accessories.
Number of times the vehicle was inspected.
In situations where "clone hunting" is the focus, CARCO's database, which includes color photos of the vehicle as part of its inspection reports, clearly documents the vehicle's color, and often reveals model-year discrepancies. These occur when a car is registered and insured as a specific model year to agree with the year of the VIN being used. The stolen vehicle, on which the VIN is attached, however, can be detected as a different model year by a trained investigator through slight differences in features such as body design, exterior lighting fixtures or trim moldings that were not used on the model year shown in the VIN.
An important aspect of the vehicle inspection reports contained in CARCO’s unique database system is the ability to augment the inspector’s written observations with clear digital images of the inspected vehicle, particularly the EPA Label, generally located on the driver’s side door or door post. The EPA label photo provides visual clues that can help reveal a stolen, renumbered vehicle through a variety of physical characteristics including but not limited to:
Label design or format for the designated model year and manufacturing plant.
Incorrect spelling and/or placement.
Incorrect specifications that do not match the inspected vehicle such as model code, tire size and date of manufacture.
Key Vehicle-Related Database Resources
Currently existing are a number of private organizations and state and federal government agencies whose vehicle-related databases are regularly used by law enforcement and insurance industry SIU’s. While each of the information systems may be configured differently, depending on the nature and mission of the respective organization, the ability to access one or all database systems expands and enhances the investigator’s tool kit. Although there are others, the following organizations maintain some of the key vehicle theft-related databases.
AutoCheck: www.autocheck.com (1-888-397-3742)
The company is the vehicle history reporting service of Experian Information Solutions, Inc, a global information provider offering analysis tools and marketing services including: fraud detection, identity authentication, fraud protection and credit verification systems. AutoCheck’s reports include a vehicle history “Score” as an aid to prospective buyers of used vehicles. Inspection reports include a summary, title and problem check, odometer check, use and event check, and related history.
CARCO Group Inc: www.carcogroup.com (1-800-969-2272)
Founded in 1977, the company is the pioneer and long-time leader in the anti-fraud, pre-insurance vehicle inspection business. It provides services to more than 600 insurance companies and physically inspects in excess of 1.5 million vehicles a year through its extensive network of more than 6,000 inspection sites. The types of data contained in the company’s VIN-based inspection database, directly related to the physical examination of vehicles, include a detailed inspector’s report with information about the vehicle’s condition and other essential facts including an odometer reading and VIN information. CARCO’s database system, used nationwide and without charge, can be accessed through the Internet by law enforcement and SIU investigators, and the public.
Supplementing the written report are three digital photos, which show the vehicle’s condition and establishing that it actually exists, and a digital photograph of the all-important EPA Label. The label, which clearly shows the 17-digit VIN, establishes the vehicle’s identity, serving as its birth certificate. The contents of the CARCO database include historic listings in excess of 23 million inspection records from a number of states: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, California, and Ontario, Canada. The inspection report and related digital photos contained in the company’s huge database system provides a versatile resource for investigators checking suspicious claims.
Auto theft and insurance fraud investigators from law enforcement agencies across the country have access to this database without charge on a 24/7 basis.
For access to the CARCO database, contact Bill Frink: firstname.lastname@example.org
The company maintains comprehensive vehicle data histories for used vehicle buyers and sellers including auto dealers. Vehicle history reports are available for all used cars and light trucks from model year 1981 or later. Reports, which include the VIN, also contain data such as: title information, flood damage history, total loss accident records, odometer readings, number of owners, accident indication (air-bag activation), and related information.
National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB): www.nicb.org (1-800-447-6282)
NICB is the nation’s leading not-for-profit organization and the cornerstone for law enforcement and insurance industry SIU’s. It was created to combat crimes including vehicle theft and insurance fraud, with resources also applied to the prevention and detection of these crimes. Created in 1992 in a merger between the National Automobile Theft Bureau (NATB) and the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute (ICPI), the organization’s membership includes a host of insurance carriers, self-insured companies, rental car companies, parking service providers, and companies engaged in transportation or related activities. NICB operates strategic and tactical information groups, from which information gathering and distribution is a key function including investigations and data services including the following:
Mirror image data from NCIC records of stolen vehicles.
Manufacturers’ shipping records.
Records from International Organization for Standardization (ISO) including
salvage, fire, accident and insurance carrier evaluations.
Flood vehicle records.
Crime ring case records.
Records of suspect vehicles.
National Crime Information Center (NCIC): www.fbi.gov (1-304-625-2000)
Established in 1967 to create a centralized system to facilitate the flow of information between law enforcement branches, the organization’s capabilities were upgraded in the mid-90's. NCIC’s database system makes available an array of records for law enforcement and security use. NCIC’s databases include personal and property records, in which the latter includes stolen property, stolen vehicle and boat parts, and stolen vehicles and boats.
Data entries into NCIC’s system are from a variety of sources including federal law enforcement agencies, state and local law enforcement agencies, railroad police, and agencies including state and federal motor vehicle registration and licensing authorities.
National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS):
www.nmvtis.gov (E-mail: Nmvtis@usdoj.gov)
NMVTIS evolved from the IAATI-driven Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, which gave the U.S. Department of Transportation responsibility for a national information system enabling states and other entities to access automobile titling information. In 1996 the Act was amended, with responsibility for system oversight transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice.
As generally perceived, the comprehensive NMVTIS program is highly and widely respected for the benefits provided to state vehicle administrators, and the public. The program provides advantages for the state vehicle titling process, as well as providing essential information to law enforcement agencies. Included in the entities reporting to NMVTIS are a variety of businesses and agencies that are required by law to report specific data. They include: state motor vehicle titling agencies, insurance carriers, vehicle recycling operations, junk and salvage yards. In a cooperative program, NMVTIS data can also be accessed through an account with CARCO Group, Inc., Holtsville, NY (1-800-969-2272).
Significance of NMVTIS Program
More than a million vehicles reported stolen each year.
Of vehicles reported stolen only 63% are recovered.
“VIN Cloning” has become a large, growing business.
The large number of vehicles affected by recent, major hurricanes – for example, app. 570,000 in 2005 – represent prime targets for title fraud or “brand washing.”
Possible links have been established, according to NMVTIS, between auto theft and terrorist activities.
State Motor Vehicle Bureaus
Access to the location and Internet links to individual state Motor Vehicle Bureaus (MVB) is available at a number of Web sites including: mycarstats.com and findlaw.com. The type of information available in individual state MVB databases generally includes the following:
Current ownership records.
Title & registration dates.
Today, as in the past, the key components in the major line of defense for a host of vehicle-related crimes are trained, dedicated, law enforcement and SIU investigators, effective pre-insurance inspection programs. In support of the investigative world are powerful 21st Century tools of which the specialized vehicle-related database systems are at the top of the list.