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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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  • Img_0338_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Very informative!!

  • Steve_mcqueen_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Back when I was working during the early eighties , many new cars were being stolen right off the Dealers lots. Working in my Town of Oxford , Ma. Rt.#20 runs parallel to the Ma. Turnpike from Boston to New York State. Stolen cars avoided the toll road because of the stopping at toll booths and the lighted conditions so they opted for using the secondary road of Rt.#20. I would sit at a traffic intersection of rt.'s 56 and 20 and watch for new cars WITHOUT MASSACHUSETTS INSPECTION STICKERS ON THE WINDSHIELD. Regardless of the plate , usually a cold plate just stolen by the Dealership. The operator would have the keys to the car but the interior observation would show new plastic on back seats and window sticker of equipment when rolled up. Back then we did not have the capabilities you work with today . They would just say they just bought the car within the three day period for a Registration Transfer and did not have the registration on them. THATS WHEN YOU LOOKED AT THE ODOMETER AND SAW THE MILEAGE FROM THE DEALERSHIP THE CAR WAS STOLEN FROM TO THE NOW LOCATION AND PLACED THEM UNDER ARREST FOR A STOLEN CAR and attaching plates.
    The way they got the car was a real neat trick of using "Spray Can of Refrigerant for air conditioners" to spray on the white metal lock boxes that the Truck driver who delivered the car , after taking it off the ramp truck would roll up the window with the lock box on it and lock the car , and deposit the keys inside it. By spraying the lock box and taping it with a buck knife the box would disintegrate leaving the crook with both sets of keys. These cars were headed for New York , to Jerome Ave. with new VIN numbers and a title from a junk yard for a like car (usually with the Vin plate from the junk car. Back then there were no mandatory "Salvage Titles". They were also transporting Drugs sometimes also. I use to get about on average of two a month. There is more involved in these arrests but the steps taken to establish Probable Cause was the sticker then a step by step process. I have made it sound easier then it really was but the elements of the crime and PC were always followed. You would be surprised what you can learn from those little N.A.T.B. national automobile theft bureau books that are sent to all Police Agencies. It shows you all the info you need on stolen cars. Most Insurance Companies have what they call an S.I.U. special investigative unit for Auto Theft Fraud. If you get a chance , talk with one of there investigators and I am sure you will gain a plethora of information on stolen cars. I know because after I was Retired from the Police Department I freelanced with a Private Group out of Road Island. I could go on for at least a hundred pages on stolen and Grey market cars. (Grey market cars are made overseas but do not pass D.O.T. specs with there bumpers , lights, lack of safety glass, yada-yada-yada. But a BMW in Germany , used for about 25% of what you pay here. Ship it to u.s. and make a tidy profit.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 5 years ago


    Just stoping for a light that's out is good. Stoped one just before he got onto I-25 southbound. He'd stolen the car after raping a senior citizen. What's funny abiut that is he'd raped the same senior before. But he ended up in the county then stae hotel with all expenses paid. Good article with valuale info. Thanks!

  • Police3_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    that is a really good article.

  • 48n02-2-9_22-6__max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Great information. It makes you think about being more aware of people around you.

  • Dsc03092_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Good information.

  • American_flag_eagle_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Good article

  • John_groh_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    Interesting artical.

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