Think of your vehicle identification number (VIN) as your car’s Social Security number. The 17-character VIN, which can be found on a metal plate mounted to your dashboard, is uniquely assigned to every vehicle that's manufactured. If you’re concerned about your car being stolen, you may want to consider having the VIN etched onto your vehicle’s glass.
While the procedure has been around for several years, VIN etching is growing in popularity as a way to thwart would-be thieves while also providing a discount on auto insurance premiums. Experts say having the VIN discreetly etched onto every window and windshield makes a car that much less attractive to crooks.
Sandra Hampton, who leads GEICO’s glass claims unit, says: “We’re seeing that VIN etching is a good deterrent. Car thieves don’t want to go to the expense of having all the windows replaced. It’s one of several ways we recommend to help keep vehicles safe.”
Here are three reasons to look at VIN etching.
1. It’s cheap (and sometimes free).
Numerous agencies across the country have been holding auto-glass-etching programs, which encourage car owners to bring their vehicles in for quick, cheap VIN etching.
In Delaware, for example, the Dover Police Department and the Governor’s Auto Theft Strike Force teamed up in November 2011 to sponsor just such a program. For a fee of $10, a driver could bring his or her vehicle to the Dover Police Department and have the etching process completed in less than five minutes.
“You’re seeing an increasing number of insurance companies and law enforcement agencies having these etching events,” says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau. “It’s another low-cost, effective way to protect your vehicle, and many places will do it for free. It’s an easy way for people to take some initiative in trying to prevent their ride form getting stolen.”
To find out whether an etching program is being offered near you, call your city or county government offices or check with your auto insurance company.
Also, many car dealerships offer VIN etching, and several companies sell do-it-yourself etching kits.
2. It’s effective (to a point).
Mark Carrasquillo, an insurance agent at insurance brokerage E.G. Bowman Co. in New York City, says drivers should not underestimate the effectiveness of VIN etching.
“If we start with the premise that the parts of a vehicle are worth more than the whole, then the etched windows become a visual deterrent, telling the would-be thieves that they are not going to get as much money as they hoped, or that it’s simply going to be too much of an inconvenience,” Carrasquillo says.
And it’s about more than just the glass, Carrasquillo says. Consider, for example, the doors.
“I don’t think an establishment that deals in stolen goods is going to want to take the time to disassemble, remove, replace and reassemble a door just to remove the etched glass,” Carrasquillo says. “That’s a lot of added work.”
Thieves know what to look for, Scafidi says, and these days they're more aware of VIN etching than ever before. If a thief sees that number along the bottom of your window, he's that much more likely to move on to the next target.
Scafidi says that even though he’s seen this trend gaining popularity, there isn’t really a way to measure how well it's working.
“There’s no way you can really tell whether that vehicle with that etching was considered by a thief who then thought, 'I will move on to the next car.' It’s one of those unknowns,” Scafidi says. “But anything that makes an item less attractive to a thief helps.”
Jeremy Warnick, an auto theft specialist at LoJack Corp., which sells auto security systems, says the effectiveness of VIN etching also shouldn't be overestimated. Rather, it should play a role in what he calls a “layered approach” to vehicle safety, which also includes applying common sense (not leaving your keys in the car, for example) and installing an alarm system.
“Really sophisticated thieves know how to work around these etchings,” Warnick says. “Even if your glass is etched, they can always take it to an underground garage and have some work done to it. It’s a good tool, for sure, but people shouldn’t get a false sense of security.”
3. It's a way to save money on auto insurance.
David Medvidofsky, president-elect of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters Society, says most auto insurance companies will at least weigh offering a discount on comprehensive auto coverage if the glass is etched with the VIN. The precise discount varies from company to company and isn’t all that big, but Medvidofsky says he’s seen discounts ranging from 3 percent to 15 percent.
“When it comes to added theft deterrents, it’s going to be alarm systems and VIN etching that’ll effectively do the most to reduce your auto premium,” Medvidofsky says.
Carrasquillo says auto insurers in New York typically apply a discount of 3 percent to 5 percent for VIN etching. “And since this etching is usually offered for free, it’s a win-win deal,” Carrasquillo says.
Not only does it act as a theft deterrent, but VIN etching increases the likelihood that your vehicle will be recovered if it's stolen. This, too, is an attractive benefit to insurers.
"Auto insurers almost always offer premium rate discounts to policyholders who focus on safe driving and loss mitigation," says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. "Drivers who have their VIN etched into their car in this way are often laying the groundwork for the vehicle's quick recovery in the event it is stolen."