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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)


I include vanity plates under the general term “stickers” as in “bumper stickers.” People put these individual markings on their cars as a way to tell you something about themselves. If I saw a “Pearl Harbor Survivor” vanity plate on a car being driven by a 20-something, I would take a second look. Yes, they could be driving grandpa’s car. It’s not enough for a traffic stop – but, it is enough to take a closer look. There are sorts of these stickers – imagine you see an “Obama/Biden for President” bumper sticker. As you pass the car, you note the driver has an Aryan Brother tattoo on his neck. Is this his car? Again, it doesn’t mean the car is stolen, but it’s worth a cop’s double-take.

Black and White Fever

It’s not a crime to avoid the police. But, sometimes there is a reason people are avoiding you. Hopefully, you have already learned that the best patrol speed is slightly below the speed limit and in the right-hand most lane. You simply see more and have more time to react. As you patrol, watch the rearview mirror. Lots of people aren’t going to want to pass you; I watched the people who didn’t pass and then made the earliest right-hand turn. I made the next right, sped up slightly and often met them at the next cross street. You can tell a lot by a driver’s reaction to you suddenly appearing.

Driver Unfamiliarity

Because I am unfamiliar with the car, whenever I rent a car I have a terrible time with the bright lights and the windshield wipers. They are sometimes combined on the same gadget. The point is that if someone acts as if they are new to the car, they are new to the car. The most egregious example you may find is some attempting to drive a manual transmission who clearly can’t. This is an excellent time to reiterate that unfamiliarity doesn’t mean the car is stolen. I didn’t steal the rentals, but have activated the turn signals instead of the wipers on many occasions.

Rental Cars

Stolen rental cars can be somewhat complex investigations. Unless the company has reported the car stolen, the company is likely to consider it overdue and not be helpful in assisting with prosecution. However, they are usually worth a second look. Perhaps not a traffic stop, but a look at the driver and a check of the plate is a good expense of time and energy. Of course, if you work around a tourist destination such as an airport, rentals maybe fairly common.

Hard Driving

Just as we are sometimes unfamiliar with the operation of a rental car we also might not treat rentals as we would our own cars. It is the same for car thieves. Hard driving will likely lead to some type of traffic violation and your entry into a stop. Additionally, illegally and oddly parked vehicles are a clue that the driver was inattentive and/or just didn’t care. Before you hang that parking cite on an unattended vehicle, check the plate. As you cruise through your local parking lots, newer cars that are parked in some unusual manner, like very close to another car thus risking dents, are candidates for a second look.

Ducks can Fly

As you get better at honing in on vehicles based on the first 12 tactics of this article, you will find more unattended stolen vehicles – sitting ducks or just plain ducks. If you spot an unattended vehicle and it turns out to be stolen don’t assume it has been abandoned. It’s a developed talent to drift by a car, pick up the plate and run it without burning the car. If you don’t burn it (alerting the suspects to your presence and knowledge) you have a decision to make. Impound or surveillance. This decision will be driven by a number of factors such as your department policy, radio calls in the queue, availability of a place of concealment and so on. The point is that just because you have a duck doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily have an arrest.

Chop Shops

Many professional car thieves tow cars and often the thefts are based on orders. As an example, if you find a stripped 88 Honda Accord in alley, cruise around and see if you can find an auto repair shop working on a similar vehicle. Take a close look at your state’s vehicle code. It likely gives you a lot of leeway with respect to towing companies and auto repair shops. If you are a municipal police officer or sheriff’s deputy, corner a state highway patrol officer or trooper. Either a state highway patrol officer or trooper are likely really knowledgeable on exactly what you can do and what constitutes probable cause with tow trucks and auto repair shops. Moreover, if you have a detective in your agency that specializes in auto theft investigations, talk to that person. The main point is while you are talking to auto theft experts, tow truck drivers and auto repair shop owners you will gain significantly more experience than you could ever pick up from this article!

Stay safe and good hunting!

About the Author
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.) retired from the Los Angeles Police Department. He is the author or co-author of six books including Police Technology and Leadership: Texas Hold ‘em Style. He can be contacted through his website at

  • Photo_user_banned_big


    about 24 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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