Insurers should beware of claims involving imported luxury vehicles, police have warned, as huge numbers of cars stolen in the UK are being given false European identities.

Detective Constable Steve Wimpenny of Scotland Yard's Stolen Vehicle Unit said the ingenious scam involved the theft of luxury car brands such as Mercedes, Porsche and BMW.

He said the thieves then searched European car dealership websites for a car of the same make and colour.

The thieves pretend to be interested in buying the car and request information such as the vehicle identification number (VIN), which the dealer innocently faxes to them.

Next, they use the VIN to request a certificate of conformity, which

certifies that the car conforms to European standards, and a dating certificate from the manufacturers.

DC Wimpenny said manufacturers

provided these certificates for £80.

“They're providing a legitimate service for what they think is a legitimate vehicle, because the VIN fits their records,” he said.

This information is then used to register the car with the DVLA's Vehicle Registration Office (VRO).

Although the certificates are often for a left-hand-drive, and cars stolen in the UK are usually right-hand-drives, Detective Inspector Huw Jenkins said the under-resourced VRO mostly failed to pick up the anomalies, meaning the thieves were free to put the stolen vehicle on the market under a false import identity.

DI Jenkins said insurers should be wary of insuring imported cars.

“If I were an insurer of an imported car, I'd ask if the risk I'm covering is the same as the risk I've got. For example, the covered risk may be a £40,000 vehicle against a £25,000 cheaper import,” he said.

Barry Sawers, of Reading, was a victim of the scam after buying a £16,000 Audi Quattro from two men in Slough.

Sawers searched the car with vehicle verification agency HPI before purchase but, because the stolen car had been given a legitimate identity by the VRO, it came up clear.

Sawers' car was a 2.7 twin-turbo petrol vehicle, but the certificate presented to the VRO was for a 2.5 Turbo diesel, which the VRO failed to spot.

He said: “On looking more closely at the V5 (registration document),

I noticed it was shown as a saloon and not an estate. The vendors said that this was a regular mistake with imported vehicles at the DVLA. On contacting the DVLA, this was confirmed as being the case and I was told that this had been happening for years and I shouldn't worry about it.”

Vehicle fraud expert Philip Swift of CMA Loss Adjusters is now looking into Sawers' case for HPI.

The DVLA has promised to investigate the problem and respond as soon as possible.