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What does a chop shop do?

        Auto | Auto Basics

Where Chopped Cars End Up
Stolen cars with new VIN numbers can be shipped outside the country using forged customs documents.
Stolen cars with new VIN numbers can be shipped outside the country using forged customs documents.

Chop shops have several options for selling parts. Some end up on the black market. But they also unload parts through legitimate channels, either by selling them to mechanics or salvage yards who turn a blind eye, or through salvage yards of their own that appear legitimate to the public. To avoid having those parts traced back to the stolen cars, they can counterfeit or obscure the serial numbers that identify them.

Car engines and transmissions, while they can be sold for a good price, are often destroyed or dumped. The same is true of the car's frame. Those parts are tagged with vehicle identification numbers (VINs) in cars manufactured after 1981 [source: Carfax]. VINs, unique numbers assigned to every newly manufactured car, are trouble for chop shops. Among other uses, the VIN helps law enforcement trace stolen vehicles and their parts. Chop shops deal with VINs in several ways. Some simply dump the parts with the number after burning the VINs with a torch to destroy evidence. Some etch counterfeit numbers into the parts using special tools. Others purchase wrecked cars at salvage auctions so they can use the VIN from the wrecked car on the stolen car's parts [source: U.S. Senate].

Some chop shops get more creative, completely replacing the VIN on a stolen car so that the car can be sold intact, not for parts. This process is called re-Vinning. Chop shop operators purchase cars at salvage auctions that have been destroyed in accidents or fires. Chop shops want these vehicles mostly for their VINs. Once they have the car and its VIN, they steal a car of the same make and model. Then, they can switch the VIN plates (found inside the door and on the dash) on the two cars and claim that they have repaired a totaled car [source: Statistics Canada]. Another method, called a "body switch," requires taking the frame of the totaled car and using parts from the stolen car to replace the damaged parts and make the car usable [source: U.S. Senate].

Cars that have been re-Vinned are frequently shipped out of their country of origin using forged customs documents. They are then sold in foreign countries either on the black market or in the open [source: Statistics Canada]. The market for automobiles in underdeveloped countries has been increasing in recent years. Countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East all have a high demand for imported cars. Once the cars have been exported, it is extremely difficult for any law enforcement agents to track them down [source: McClearn]. This is another reason why so many stolen cars remain unrecovered.