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How to Check if Car is Stolen by License Plate

Do you want to know how to check if car is stolen by license plate? Unfortunately, this is not one of those vehicle look-ups you complete from your home.

how to check if car is stolen by license plate

You can check if a car is stolen by the license plate. Ask the police or the DMV, you can also use any trusted website to search the plate database with the license plate. If you manage to pull the plate details such as VIN, look it up to know if it is a stolen car.

If you look up a stolen car with the license plate, you are assuming that the thief did not change the license plate. Well, license plates are one of the first items a criminal will rip from a stolen car.

A license plate is not reliable to check if a car is stolen, the VIN is. If the car is out of sight but you have the license plate number, you may be able to pull the VIN with it. Unfortunately, VINs can also be cloned.

How to Check if Car is Stolen by License Plate

If you insist on checking for a stolen car with a license plate, this section contains a few suggestions that can help.

Below are the ways regarding how to check if car is stolen by license plate:

  1. Ask the police

The police may be able to help you tell if a car is stolen using the license plate number. If it is another person’s car you want to buy, you will be asked to obtain the VIN instead. The police will not randomly look-up license plates for you. Of course, the police have more pressing matters to handle.

If your car is stolen, you can simply report it to the police. If you have only your license plate number, the police can work out a way to verify the car and search for it. But then, you should check your home for documents that may contain your VIN.

Calling the police’s emergency number if it is not an emergency may not help, except this is a case of theft.

The police can run the plate through their data terminal in the police cruiser. If you are not a police officer, you cannot access the information.

  1. Ask the DMV

The DMV can also help you to check if a car is stolen by the license plate. If you are buying the car from a private seller or dealership, you will be asked to obtain the VIN from the car.

The VIN could be anywhere, including the windshield or any document the seller may have in their possession.

Perhaps, the only event where the DMV will run the plates is if the VIN is not visible on the car.

Moreover, buying a car with no VIN is risky, you could be paying for an actual stolen car. If the seller has no way to show the VIN, do not buy the car. Criminals typically alter VINs when selling stolen cars.

  1. National Insurance Crime Bureau

You can check if a car is stolen with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). However, you need the VIN. You want to obtain the VIN using the license plates to tell whether a car is stolen or not.

Also, about 6-7 vehicle parts could be registered with the NICB, so there are places you can find the papers and tags to check if the car is stolen. This information also reveals the identity of the car owner. There are other VIN look-up services you can use.

Can You Find a Stolen Car with Partial License Plate Search?

Can you check if a car is stolen by license plate

You can find a stolen car with a partial license plate. Basically, after getting complete information on the plates about the car, you verify the theft status with the pulled VIN.


A partial search can be done offline and manually. The information will be submitted to the database administrator where the plate will be searched. Since you are searching for theft status with license plates, the plate is submitted to the state motor vehicles registry.

This search is done in the form of a Boolean search. For instance:

  • License plate – C****6
  • Vehicle make – Honda
  • Model – Civic
  • First Name – John

The make and model of the car can be omitted if you do not have the information. The name of the car owner can also be omitted, the searcher assumes that the person driving the car is the registered owner.

Since this search is done manually, it can take at least 7 days or more. You may be fortunate it takes only 2-3 days.

The requested return will then be printed out with registration information of the license plate. The investigator now has to go through the records to determine the registration information, including the VIN to be able to check for theft.

The problem here is that it can be difficult to get an offline search approval due to the workload.


A partial search if you do not have a complete license plate can also be done online or with the aid of software. This will only require the investigator to fill in spaces to arrive at a result.

A dispatcher or an investigator will simply run the combination of missing license plate numbers/letters. This can take minutes, hours, or even days to know the match for the car being investigated.

For example, suppose the car in question is a White 2001 Toyota Yaris with the plates number ‘764BRS’ and you only have ‘—BRS’. The investigator now has to match the plate by running numbers from 000 to 999 for a matching car.

The search is easier depending on the plate identification you have. For instance, it is easier to trace the car with plate number if it is ‘764B—’ that you have out of ‘764BRS’. This is because the investigator only needs 676 combos.

Can a cop tell when a license plate does not match a car?

A cop can tell when a license plate does not match a car. For this reason, criminals change the plate number on a stolen car to avoid getting caught, known as ‘cold plating’.

Read also: falsifying driver’s license just got easier

If a car is ‘hot’ (has been reported stolen), the plates can be ‘cold’. However, if the cold plate does not match the car, cops can suspect that the car is stolen.

The cop can run the plate to know whether the car is stolen or not. They can also check the VIN to see if it is altered in any visible part of the car.

Final Thoughts

We have attempted to answer the question about checking if a car is stolen with the license plates. As mentioned earlier, a license plate is not the sure-fire way to tell a stolen car, you need the VIN.

VINs can also be cloned or changed, so you cannot rely on the report you receive when you run the VIN.

Latest posts by Bernard Juchli (see all)

Bernard Juchli

Bernard Juchli is an experienced racer, mechanic and team owner who trusts Avon Tyres.Bernard is the lead driver and force behind his Big Dog Garage Race Team. He is the General Manager and Chief Mechanic of Jay Leno’s Garage. Bernard and his crew of seven are responsible for all repairs, restoration and fabrication of Jay’s incredible automobile and motorcycle collection.

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