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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)

“G-ride, Hot Roller, Code 37” – no matter what you call it, arresting someone driving a stolen car is solid police work. In this article we are going to examine 15 tactics that will assist you in locating stolen cars. Before we look at these tactics, let’s review a couple of basic legal questions.

First, you need little, if any, reasonable suspicion to run a license plate. On the other hand, if you are making a probable cause stop for some other violation (typically a traffic violation) checking the status of the vehicle’s license is common and accepted police safety practice. Second, pre-textual stops are Constitutional. Lastly, many of these tactics would come under the realm of building reasonable suspicion.

Throughout your patrol you pass scores, hundreds perhaps thousands of automobiles; but which ones might be stolen? The point of this article is to narrow down the number of cars to those at which you might want to take a second look. In other words, with all the cars you see, these tactics can help you narrow down the field to taking a closer look at few and thereby greatly increase the likelihood that you will find a stolen car. As you will see, none of these tactics alone indicate a car is stolen, but two or three together are stronger pointers toward further investigation.

Inside the Car

Does the driver have keys? While a few high-end cars have a push button start, most cars require a key in the ignition to start the vehicle. As you’re on patrol, and particularly when you are stopped for a light, develop the habit of looking through your driver’s side window and through the passenger’s window of the vehicle next to you. Do they have a key? Is the steering column intact? What is in plain sight from this typical vantage point? Indeed, I once observed a young driver with a “club” still on the wheel. During the pursuit he could only make quarter turns to the right or left!


The reason the person is driving without lights might be that the steering column has been damaged. When a steering column has been damaged, the headlights and turn signal lights might malfunction. I have seen vehicles with a damaged steering column that caused the bright lights to be stuck on. The point is that your equipment violation may be more than just a fix-it ticket. The better you get at this, the more specific knowledge you’ll have.


What may draw you attention to a potentially stolen car is the age of the driver. Imagine you are stopped at a traffic light. There are two cars a head of you. Both have taillights out, one driver appears to be 30 and the other appears to be 15. Clearly, you are going to conduct the traffic stop on the younger driver. Would a reasonable person of similar training and experience think that person was too young to drive? If so, you are building your reasonable suspicion.

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  • Photo_user_banned_big


    about 15 hours ago


  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 2 years ago


    Indeed, your tips are very useful. But we also have to be very careful about situations that no one expects. A colleague of mine spotted what he thought to be a stolen car, but the true is that the one driving it was the real owner just because some guy decided to donate a car. Just like that. So imagine in what position the policeman put that poor man.

  • Img_20140823_202523_max50


    about 3 years ago


    This article helped me tremendously with building PC and other things to look for while on patrol. Thank you I look forward to learning helpful tactics like this article outlines, in the years to come. Thank You!

  • Fbi_max50


    over 3 years ago


    One of my friends is part of a Ford dealers Des Moines team and let me tell you that one day he found 5000$ in an used car. He tried to call the owner to give him the money back, but he never managed to actually find him because he only provided a cell number which wasn't working anymore. I bet that money could be stolen. I will call my friend and let him know. He should call the police.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 3 years ago


    I always rent my car from a Fox Car Rental agency because I don't need a car daily and if my car would somehow be stolen, I would feel very bad. That is why I prefer renting my car. A person who steals your car has no interest in preserving its integrity in case of a police chase.

  • Esu_patch_max50


    about 4 years ago


    I like the bug strikes on the rear plate thing, never thought of that one. I also found that lots or perps would never use the a/c in a car. It could be a 100 deg July day and theyd be riding around with the windows open in a late model car that should have a working a/c unit. I used to think it was because they wanted to be able to hear better like the yelp on a siren, who knows.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    Good article, but I think you left out a couple of things. As an investigator of auto thefts, the majority of what you say is true, however, my biggest issue is with the confidential numbers. I would not suggest you tell patrolmen to look for secondary numbers in the field. I have seen many officers simultaneously teach a potential perp. exactly where the hidden numbers are located by accident. Even though an arrest can be made, the next time he/she is stopped, the numbers will be removed. SECONDARY NUMBERS SHOULD ONLYBE LOCATED IN A CONTROLED ENVIROMENT, AWAY FROM PUBLIC VIEW.

    You did not mention defeated door locks, broken windows that have been taped up, windows pulled out of their frames, license plate and inspection sticker from a diffrent state, driver's seat in the half-rest position while in motion, rags tied around the steering column, concealing the damage to the ignition switch. A few additional tips to metnion to your readears.

  • Ph-10492_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Something I don't think was mentioned that's led to 2 stolens for me was insect/bug strikes on the rear plate. ended up plates were removed from another vehicle and the front plates were put on the rear of the stolens.

  • Drknite_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good Info..

  • Me_max50


    over 4 years ago



  • 792504602_1__max50


    over 4 years ago


    A very informative article that is very useful for the patrol officer. You can look for a few more "indicators" of vehicle theft activity such as busted out wing windows, punched out vehicle locks, "bogus" buyers/dealer temp Texas there are many types of these tags, so when you run them they should come back with a return...if not then you might have a "hit". WATCH OUT for BOOBY TRAPS in abandoned vehicles!!!!! Be safe and God Bless!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    While recovering stolen vehicles on probable cause traffic stops, I learned to identify false VIN plates by the various types of rivets that are supposed to be on the particular make and model of a vehicle. I could not believe how easy it was using the rivets and how offenders didn't know what we know pertaining to that. I carried a small book the size of a wallet with all the rivet types and which vehicles use them. Whn I learned this practice, I immediately walked a parking lot area with my little book and found two vehicles in one parking lot with switched VIN plates. For security and other reasons, I purposely avoided naming the title of the book I referred to. You can contact your local state highway patrol, if you are a peace officer with a need to know.

  • Pug_max600_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Excellent. Also check for altered or obscured VIN numbers.

  • In_remembrance_of_oakland_pd_max50_max50_max50_max50_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    All good info, good article.

  • 0503091740_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Who cares if it's "profiling" or not. Stereo types are there for a reason: when I was 16, I was pulled over almost every time I drove. --With good reason too, 16 year olds can't drive well, and teenagers are usually up to no good anyways. AND in my small town, alot of kids drove without even having a licence, or they were drunk or high, so it was a good thing they were pulled over

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