Receiving an expensive traffic fine in the mail can result in a horrible, sinking feeling.
But for Melbourne man Angelo, that feeling only got worse when he inspected photos taken by the red light camera which had pinged his vehicle with a $462 fine last month.
His family's car had been snapped driving at 2.52am on the other side of the city, where they rarely ventured.
"We found that no one was actually driving," he told Yahoo News Australia.
While someone was driving, it wasn't anyone from his family. The car looked the same. It was the same make, model and colour. And it had the same number plates.
"The vehicle in picture was a very similar description of our Audi ... but not actually ours."
It became clear that his car's number plates had been cloned.
When Angelo – an IT worker who asked for his surname to be withheld – contacted police, the officer who dealt with his case asked him one question that led to an epiphany.
Police wanted to know if he had recently tried to sell his car.
The vehicle in question had actually been advertised for sale on Carsales "for a few months now", Angelo told Yahoo News Australia.
While in 2019 the website introduced new AI technology that automatically detects number plates in photos and blurs them, it failed to detect one in his listing, thus revealing the registration number to people browsing the site.
"[The officer] then went on to inform me that criminals online find a target car that matches a similar profile to their own ... and then replicate the plates and commit a list of different offences from stealing fuel to gathering fines, and even using the plates to break into homes and businesses," he recalled.
He's not alone either. Brisbane mother Karley Saidy-Hennessey also had her plates cloned after putting her Lexus up for sale on Facebook and Gumtree last year, accidentally leaving her number plates visible in the ad listing.
She also found out the hard way after receiving some unwanted mail.
"Some of the tolls were going from about four o'clock in the morning," she told Channel Nine. "They were doing multiple trips throughout the days of this going on."
Motorists urged to use caution on social media
Cloned plates can be made to match the genuine plates of a vehicle of the same make, model and colour, meaning a routine police check won’t raise any red flags.
The National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, an initiative between Australian governments and the insurance industry, has warned in recent years of the rise in the criminal practice.
Police say motorists should be careful when posting images of their cars on social media.
"Preventative measures such as blurring number plate details when advertising vehicles online, or when sharing vehicle photos and videos on social media can help to reduce the likelihood of a vehicle’s number plate being easily identified online," a Victorian Police spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.
"Number plate theft and cloning is often at the centre of more serious offending," they added.
"Stolen and cloned number plate details are often used by offenders to hide the identify of a vehicle when committing other crimes, such as burglaries, ram raids, petrol drive offs, toll evasion and to evade police."
In August last year, Victoria Police seized number plate manufacturing equipment, stolen and cloned plates from a Narre Warren home, arresting a 36-year-old man in the process.
A month earlier, Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun ran a story detailing a gangland assassination committed while using cloned plates, under a dramatic headline declaring: "Cloned number plates see criminals get away with murder".
Due to improvement in printing technology, cloning has become a growing trend among enterprising criminals, the publication reported.
Calls for better tech to prevent number plate cloning
The red light camera fine was the first infringement notice Angelo has received but he said he is bracing for more.
He also said the episode has seen "hundreds of dollars racked up on toll accounts" which he needs to investigate.
He hopes advancements in technology can help address the problem in the future.
"Coming from an IT background myself, it surprised me the most that there isn't a solution or other verification methods implemented that can prevent these types of things from happening," he said.
"Hopefully in the near future more advanced technology is implemented that can detect and catch individuals using fraud or cloned number plates."
In Victoria, under the Road Safety Act, it is an offence to forge or fraudulently alter or use any vehicle identifier, including an identification number plate with a potential penalty of six months in prison.
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