The police are developing a new weapon in the fight against criminals who use cloned vehicles.
The news comes after one local authority reported that several of its vehicles were cloned using fleet data released as a result of a Freedom of Information request.
“Since the Freedom of Information Act became law we have had several requests for details of our vehicle fleet.
"The information we have supplied has always been as vague as we could make it,” explained Phillip Wright, director of neighbourhood services at Erewash Borough Council, near Nottingham.
“However, there have been various incidents that have led us to believe our fleet information has been used to create cloned vehicles.”
Cloned vehicles are created by criminals who copy the number plate of a legitimate vehicle onto a similar model and then use it to avoid parking and congestion charges, as well as for more serious crimes.
Now the police service is developing new software that will recognise when suspected cloned vehicles pass automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras located on the roadside and in most fuel stations.
Currently up to 50 million number plates are identified by ANPR cameras every day.
The new technology will analyse this data to identify when vehicles with the same number plate are moving at the same time.
“We are exploring how ANPR data can be used to identify cloned vehicles,” explained PC Paul Black of Durham Police, which is at the forefront of developing ANPR data technology.
“By using analytical tools to identify anomalies such as when a car heading north on the M1 is also spotted on the M50, the ANPR system will send an alarm to officers.”
The problem of cloned vehicles is not limited to public sector fleets.
Nigel Trotman, former fleet manager at Whitbread, had a new car cloned immediately after it was delivered.
By the time news reached the legitimate driver, the cloned vehicle had racked up hundreds of pounds in congestion charge penalties.
“In the end we had to give the driver a letter in case she got stopped for the outstanding fines, which she did.
"It got to the point where she was considering buying a personal number plate for the vehicle," Mr Trotman said.
John Pryor, fleet manager of Arcadia Group and ACFO director, explained that though instances of cloning remain sporadic, fleet managers often spend a considerable amount of time and effort resolving cases.
“Though I’m not aware of lots of instances cloning is a very clear possibility and we know it happens.
"These are not scare stories,” he said.
“Once a vehicle has been picked up you have to prove that the cloned vehicle wasn’t yours.
"It’s the time and hassle factor that’s the issue, especially if there is more than one authority involved in chasing up fines.”
A DVLA spokesman said in serious cloning cases, it will consider issuing a new number plate.
He also advised the stricter laws in relation to who can buy and sell number plates are being introduced, and that fleets should consider fitting theft proof number plates to their vehicles.