Cases of criminals found to have cloned cars to avoid detection have risen dramatically in London since the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, a new report reveals.
Previously unseen Transport for London figures exposed a 631 per cent rise in the number of cancelled penalty charge notices relating to vehicles using duplicate number plates following the October expansion of the zone.
These are penalties originally issued to innocent drivers for failed ULEZ entry payments in their non-compliant vehicle that have been scrapped on appeal after the legitimate owner was proved that the offending vehicle was using copycat number plates, likely in a bid to cover up criminal activity rather than to simply avoid the £12.50 daily charge.
Is car cloning on the rise? The expansion of the ULEZ has exposed an increase in criminals using duplicate number plates to evade prosecution, a new report suggests
The figures have been revealed by online car marketplace, heycar, which warned that already hard-pressed motorists are being hit with unfair PCNs for offences they didn’t commit.
It analysed data from TfL regarding the number of ULEZ PCNs being cancelled due to incriminating cars being clones of legitimate vehicles.
These are tickets issued to genuine owners of vehicles that are not compliant with the emission charging zone (generally diesel cars older than 2015 and petrols older than 2006) that appear to have been captured driving within the ULEZ on Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras across the city.
However, the cars caught on camera are using duplicate plates of the legitimate vehicle.
The TfL records showed there had been 641 PCNs overturned for this reason from October 2020 to April 2021.
Between October 2021 and April 2022, the number of cancelled charges was 4,687 – an increase of 631 per cent.
The ULEZ was extended on 25 October 2021, increasing the boundary to 18 times its size, extending the potential catchment area from the Congestion Charge Zone in Central London out to the North and South Circular Roads.
Comparing April 2021 – when lockdown restrictions were being lifted in England – with the same month this year, the data shows a 857 per cent increase (up from 61 fines to 584) in overturned PCNs relating to cloned vehicles.
Car cloning can take various forms with a criminal either physically stealing a registration plate from a similar vehicle or having a fake plate illegally made to put on a model is similar description.
Cloned number plates are typically used on vehicles that are stolen, unroadworthy or used in illegal activity.
In the event of a PCN being issued due to a cloned car, the legitimate registered keeper will be required to provide evidence to satisfy the issuer of the ticket that their car was not being driven at the time and place where the alleged offence occurred.
The ULEZ was extended 18 times in size on October when the boundary was moved from Central London to the North and South Circular roads
Anyone who fails to make an appeal face a ULEZ PCN charge of £160, which is reduced to £80 if paid within 14 days.
Car cloning is part of a wider increase in vehicle crime in the last few years.
In total, 88,915 vehicles in England and Wales were stolen in the 12 months to 7 March 2022, according to the 34 police forces that responded to a Freedom of Information request from the PA news agency. That works out at an average of 244 thefts a day.
The biggest year-on-year increase was in South Yorkshire, where there was a 28 per cent rise in stolen motors.
Car owners have also had to get smart in the battle against keyless car thefts as well as face a growing number of parts thefts, namely catalytic converters ripped from the underside of petrol vehicles.
Car cloning can take various forms with a criminal either physically stealing a registration plate from a similar vehicle or having a duplicate fake plate illegally made
Commenting on the findings, heycar’s consumer editor Sarah Tooze said TfL cloning figures are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as some drivers are unable to prove their innocence to authorities.
‘Many drivers are unable to provide the evidence TfL requires to cancel the PCN due to the vehicle being a clone,’ she explained.
‘Appealing the PCN process can also be complicated and intimidating, which means many more victims will pay the fine to avoid the stress and end the matter.
‘The true number of cloned cars in London and elsewhere in the UK will be much higher but there are no official, national statistics which are publicly available.
‘We are urging the DVLA to publish car cloning figures so drivers can see the true scale of the problem within the UK.
‘There needs to be greater transparency around this serious crime and tighter regulations to help prevent innocent motorists being stung with fines or, worse still, losing thousands of pounds by unknowingly buying a cloned vehicle.’
As well as better preventative measures, the appeals process for victims needs to be improved.
Heycar research found car cloning victims can be forced to go to great lengths to prove their innocence (as the case study below demonstrates) with some local authorities and transport bodies who issue the PCNs requiring information from the police which can be difficult to obtain.
‘Car cloning victims should be treated as such,’ Tooze adds.
‘Instead, they can face a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ mentality, which only adds to an already stressful situation.
Heycar has provided tips for how to appeal a PCN relating to a cloned vehicle case.
My car was cloned and I was issued six PCNs with a value over £1,000
Marc Cramsie, aged 72, from London has been a victim of car cloning and found the penalty charge appeal process frustrating
Marc Cramsie, aged 72 from London was faced with six different PCNs, potentially costing up to £1,070 when he was a victim of car cloning in 2021.
Three of the PCNs were from TfL for the Congestion Charge, two were from Lambeth Council for failing to comply with a prohibition on certain types of vehicle, and being in a bus lane, and one was from Brighton and Hove City Council for being in a bus lane.
Although Marc paid the first fine he received he quickly realised his vehicle had been cloned when more PCNs arrived and he decided to appeal – a process which took six months in total, despite evidence of his innocence.
‘For the PCN for Brighton I wasn’t even in the country at the time – I had my flight details and my boarding cards but that didn’t impress the council,’ he explains.
Marc’s car also had a resident parking sticker on the windscreen – the cloned car didn’t. But that fact did not overturn the PCNs either.
Both TfL and Brighton and Hove City Council wanted evidence that the police were investigating Marc’s car being cloned.
‘They wanted the police station details and a crime reference number but when I rang up the police they logged my call but did not give me a crime reference as they couldn’t treat it as a crime,’ he said.
When a driver reports their vehicle has been cloned in the UK the police put a marker onto the Police National Computer database to say that that vehicle is likely to be a duplicate identity and that allows officers to potentially stop that vehicle and verify who the owner of that vehicle is.
Sussex Police assisted Marc by writing to Brighton and Hove City Council to confirm he had spoken to them, while the Met Police asked Marc to request that Lambeth email them to receive confirmation that the incident had been accepted by them.
‘There was a mismatch between the way that the council thinks the police should operate and the way the police actually do operate,’ Marc said.
Marc also reported the matter to Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime, which generated a case number but ‘that didn’t seem to make a difference either’.
Eventually, Marc took his case to tribunal and was successful.
‘The adjudicator spotted that the number plate on the cloned car had two bolt holes in it – that seemed to be the deciding factor,’ he said.
Marc then wrote to TfL and Lambeth Council to say that Brighton had allowed his appeal and they both also cancelled their PCNs. However, Lambeth would not refund the initial PCN which Marc had paid as he had lost his right to appeal
‘The presumption very much seems to be that you’re guilty until you can prove your innocence,’ said Marc.
‘Somebody less dogged than me might be frightened into just paying up when they don’t need to.’
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