15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car – Courtesy of PoliceLink

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.


There are two distinct areas that improve your chances of locating a stolen car. The first is areas where cars are taken from and the areas they are dropped. The first should be obvious. If you have an increase in either stolen or recovered vehicles in a specific area, you are near a fishing hole. The second less obvious, is to go where other crime occurs. Any area on your beat where you have a narcotics problem is likely to have a greater percentage of stolen cars. Also, research indicates you need two things for the likelihood of a crime to occur – young men and alcohol. Seriously, that’s hard research data. You get both elements at bars. Make bar parking lots and surrounding areas places at which you hunt for stolen cars. Add to bars, low-end motels and I will wager that if you consistently check the plates on the cars in the bar and low-end motel parking lots you will find stolen cars.


Developing informants, especially citizen informants, is the hallmark of a great beat cop. Throughout the last seasons of the HBO television show the Wire there is a Middle School kid who loves cars. More importantly, he loves to steal them. It is a running joke in the neighborhood. Everyone, except the police, knows the kid steals cars. When you talk to people, ask them about crime – dope, money, guns, who is wanted (or thinks they are wanted) and add stolen cars to the list of your questions.


As a watch commander, I would watch cops write down the wanted information in their notebooks. Rarely did someone come back to the station in the same shift with the stuff they had written down. I think this was because there is too much going on. I developed a simpler system. You don’t need to memorize the plate of every stolen car, but if you can remember enough to jog your memory – at the right time – you will make great observation arrests. Go into records, detectives and listen to the watch commander. On freshly stolen cars, memorize just enough. As an example, if I told you a vehicle with the plate 2NMG187 was stolen, could you memorize the plate and recall it throughout your shift as hundreds of cars passed you? You would be more likely to remember pieces of information you can relate to other information. With that plate, I would memorize one of two things 1) NMG – No More God. Now, throughout the shift, every plate with NMG would draw my attention. 2) 187 is the California Penal Code Section for murder. Again, every plate with 187 would come to my attention. Try attaching parts of the plate to some other piece of information and then using that as a pointer.

License Plates

Over the years, this has become more complex. It used to be fairly simple: old cars can have new plates but new cars can’t have old plates. Before the barrage of vanity plates, plates were issued primarily by series. This is still, to some degree, solid information. In most states, you can tell what year a plate was issued by the number. So, if a new car had a plate that was issued five years ago, it was likely “cold plated.” Paying attention to the series is still good cop work. Moreover, plates that aren’t securely attached, the light is out or perhaps the number is partially obscured, bear a closer look.


There are any number of “cheat sheets” you can buy that will tell you where secondary and hidden VINS are located. In your kit bag, carry a little degreasing substance, a dirty rag and a mirror and you are on your way to becoming an expert. If you are impounding a car anyway, check the secondary and hidden VINS. A couple of minutes extra work could lead to an excellent arrest.


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!

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 www.police-lieutenant.com.

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