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How you can avoid the number plate scam

Carlton Boyce / 26 June 2016 ( 26 June 2018 )

Find out why thieves want your car’s number plate and how you can stop them.

A man removes a car's vehicle registration number plates

In 2016, the RAC revealed that 20,000 pairs of number plates are stolen in England and Wales every year; at an average of 55 thefts a day, this is a huge problem and one the police take very seriously.

Why do they do it?

There are two main reasons why a thief goes to the trouble of stealing your number plates. The first is to steal fuel; the thieves simply fit any old pair of number plates to their car, fill up with petrol or diesel and drive off. They then change the plates back to the proper ones leaving the petrol station owner with no idea of the car’s true identity and the police with almost no chance of catching them.

The second is more insidious. In this case the thief will try and steal a set of number plates from a similar car to his own in order to clone it on a long-term basis, allowing them to commit all sorts of vehicular crime with complete impunity.

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Prevention is better than cure

Anecdotal evidence suggests that thieves prefer number plates that have been stuck on, as they’re easier to remove without tools.

So screwing them on with proper number plates screws will help deter them and using security screws, which cost under £10 from places like Halfords, make it harder still.

Or, you could buy special number plates that are impossible to remove without damaging them.

The idea isn’t to make it impossible for a thief to remove the number plates; your aim is just to make it harder for him to steal yours than anyone else’s. The police call this ‘target hardening’.

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What to do if they are stolen

If you do wake up to find your car’s number plates have been stolen then you must report the theft to the police as well as your insurance company.

The police will give you a crime number, which you need to retain in case the thief commits a crime and the police come knocking on your door to ask you about it – and don’t be too quick to throw the bit of paper with the number on away, either; there are reports that the thieves will hang on to the plates for years before getting round to using them…

The police are well used to dealing with crimes involving stolen number plates and cars that have been cloned, so there is no need for sleepless nights but the whole matter will disappear much more quickly if you can prove that they were stolen and you reported it at the time.

Driving without number plates?

You cannot drive a car that doesn’t have the correct number plates fitted on a public highway.

Nor should you make some temporary ones using paper; there have been reports of people being charged for the extra offence of using number plates that don’t conform to the relevant legal standard as well as for driving without number plates in the first place.

This means you’ll need to find another way to get down to Halfords or your local motor factor in order to get them made up and fitted before you can drive your car again.

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Buying new number plates

When you go to buy a set of number plates please be sure to take your car’s V5 registration document as well as a form of identification like a driving licence with you, as the garage shouldn’t supply new plates without having sight of them.

Other measures you can take

Thieves might not even bother going to the trouble of stealing your car’s number plates; with their connections in the underworld is isn’t hard for even the most dim-witted of criminals to buy a set on the black market, leaving you none the wiser.

Combatting this is obviously much harder as you won’t know they’re using your car’s identity until it’s too late. However, one clever little trick is to fit a small sticker to the windscreen and rear window. Take a picture of them both in place and keep them on file. 

The design of the sticker doesn't matter - the point is that it's an identifying mark you can use should the police come knocking about a speeding offence, parking fine, or petrol theft. If that happens, you can show them the picture, which will have a date stamp recorded in the metadata, helping you prove that the car in question wasn’t yours, even if the number plates suggest otherwise.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.