Cloned car case highlights need for review of identity theft laws

A police and crime commisioner (PCC) and a victims’ charity are calling for a review of the law around identity theft after a woman received almost £20,000 in fines after her car numberplate was cloned.

Aug 12, 2021
By Tony Thompson
Some of the fines issued against Ms Herron.

Claire Herron of Hartlepool had advertised her Mercedes for sale on Gumtree and was unaware the numberplate had been cloned until speeding fines, congestions charges and threats of arrest warrants began arriving in the post.

Identity fraud is not currently considered a crime – only using a stolen identity in criminal activity, such as obtaining goods or money by deception, is.

As Ms Herron had suffered no personal financial loss, she was not considered to be a victim and remained liable for the fines until she could prove otherwise. Technically, no crime had been committed and it was the councils and companies issuing the unpaid fines and charges that were considered to be the victims.

Dave Mead, of the charity Victim Care and Advice Service (VCAS), said: “Legislation hasn’t kept pace with identity theft, fraud and cybercrime and we’d like to see a root and branch review of how this works. Thousands of people are really suffering financially and emotionally.”

Ms Herron recalled: ““It was Easter Bank Holiday in 2018, I was just opening my post and there was a fine for me supposedly going through a tunnel somewhere just outside London. There was a photograph of a car that looked like mine with my plate on, except it wasn’t my car and I hadn’t been in London.

“I contacted Transport for London straight away and was told it would get sorted out after the Bank Holiday, but it didn’t and that was just the start of a very long nightmare. The fines just kept coming and coming – parking charges, speeding notices and demands from nearly every borough council in London.

“One was from the City of London Police for driving over London Bridge at 3am, when I was at home in bed in Hartlepool with my car parked outside my house. The car was triggering cameras all over and I couldn’t’ stop it.”

She added: “This didn’t come under the usual identity theft rules – I was just innocently stuck in this automated system that keeps going and there was nothing I could do to stop it – it was incredibly stressful and shocking.

“I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown and I started to panic; this was potentially quite sinister and what if, whoever had cloned my plates, did something really serious like killed someone in a hit and run or something?

“It really started to impact my mental health badly; I reached a point where I physically couldn’t open my post anymore.”

One morning, Ms Herron received a call from her 80-year-old mother who runs a shop in their local town. “She said there were bailiffs at the shop and they wanted £1,200 from me. I told her it was all a mistake and to do nothing, that I was on my way.

“When I got to the shop these big, strapping bailiffs were there, demanding money. They said they’d been round to my house, gone into the back garden and into my kitchen so they could tell me what type of dog I had and what I’d last had to eat. It was so intimidating and very scary.

“I hadn’t told my mother about it all as I knew it would cause her stress. I tried to explain and went to get all the evidence, but by the time I got back my mother had caved into the pressure and given them £1,200. She just couldn’t bear it and wanted them to go away.”

In her efforts to resolve the issue, Ms Herron was passed back and forth between Cleveland Police to the Metropolitan Police Service to no avail – she says no solicitors would help as she had not been accused or found guilty of anything.

It was only after she approached VCAS, a charity that supports victims of crime across Cleveland, Co Durham and Darlington, that she managed to get some relief from the nightmare after almost a year.

VCAS enlisted the help of Ms Herron’s local MP at the time and with the assistance of the ANPR team, the numberplate was entered into the system and the stolen car was picked up soon after. Ms Herron was then refunded the money taken by the bailiffs.

“We need a review of the law around ID theft so people like me can be heard and recognised as victims,” Ms Herron said.

Mr Mead said: “Claire was caught in this automated system and not being viewed as a victim meant she couldn’t be heard at all.

“Sadly, we’ve seen this happen to others and the level of injustice is appalling; that decent people living normal lives can suddenly find bailiffs on the doorstep pressuring thousands of pounds out of vulnerable relatives – not to mention the daily and lasting emotional stress this campaign of pressure causes.”

Steve Turner, PCC for Cleveland, said:” Claire was caught in a nightmare situation, which she didn’t cause and from which she struggled to release herself.

“The fact that cloning her car’s numberplate was not considered an offence and, therefore, Claire was not considered a victim, made no difference to the amount of suffering, which she and her family endured over several months.

“It was only thanks to the patient and dedicated work of the team at VCAS that Claire managed to resolve the situation. “We really need to start to consider identity fraud as a crime and look seriously at how we can prevent innocent people, like Claire and her mum, becoming victims of it.”

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