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What Is VIN Etching and Is It Worth the Cost?

By: Jack NeradPublished July 12, 2021

If you work or go to school in the United States, you almost certainly have a Social Security number. Issued by the federal government, your Social Security number is unique to you. It is a standard identifier that separates you from everyone else on the planet. That is extremely useful because in a country of more than 330 million people, it is very likely that many people will share the same characteristics and the same name as you. Think of a VIN, which stands for Vehicle Identification Number, as a Social Security number for a car. It is a 17-character alphanumeric that is unique to each car. Federal law requires that the VIN be visible on all cars and that it be stamped on many parts of each vehicle.

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So now you know exactly what a VIN is and that it is affixed to a lot of each car’s components. That being the case, where is it etched and for what reason? Answering the first part of that is easy, but answering the second part is much more challenging. Some recommend that you have the VIN etched on your vehicle’s windshield and windows. Etching is a fairly simple process that doesn’t take very long. One way to do it is to use a glass etching tool and hand-etch the number on the glass. A more elegant way is to make a stencil of the VIN and use glass-etching paste to affix the number to your windows in unobtrusive places that won’t hinder visibility. But why should you go through the trouble in the first place.

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The theory behind VIN etching is that if the VIN is permanently engraved on a car's windows, it will deter thieves from stealing that particular vehicle. Cars are typically stolen for one of four reasons: to profit from selling the stolen car intact; to profit from selling the car’s parts individually; to provide a getaway car for another crime; or to joyride. Some state that VIN etching will deter thieves' intent on selling stolen cars and/or stolen car parts. Why? Because the window etching will require the thief to replace the car’s windows before selling the car, and because it will prevent the thief from selling the auto glass itself. That theory is certainly plausible, but there is little empirical proof that it is true.

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The theory behind VIN etching is that if the VIN is permanently engraved on a car's windows, it will deter thieves from stealing that particular vehicle. Cars are typically stolen for one of four reasons: to profit from selling the stolen car intact; to profit from selling the car’s parts individually; to provide a getaway car for another crime; or to joyride. Some state that VIN etching will deter thieves' intent on selling stolen cars and/or stolen car parts. Why? Because the window etching will require the thief to replace the car’s windows before selling the car, and because it will prevent the thief from selling the auto glass itself. That theory is certainly plausible, but there is little empirical proof that it is true.

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While the real-world benefits of VIN etching as a theft deterrent are difficult to ascertain, it is somewhat easier to determine if doing it is worth the cost. That's simply a matter of looking at the cost of VIN etching and the value of the benefits of doing so. The former is all over the ballpark. You can etch the VIN on your windows yourself by using an etching tool or an inexpensive glass-etching kit, which you can find online or at some autoparts retailers. This might cost you $20 or so. Or you can have the VIN etched onto your car's windows by the car dealer when you purchase the car, and this can be far more expensive. Depending upon the dealer’s policies, this could cost you $200 or more. Now weigh the cost of the etching — be it $20 or $200 or even more — against the value of the insurance discount you will receive from having it done. The most effective way to do this is to call your insurance company and ask.

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Looking at the cost/benefit of VIN etching on your vehicle’s windows, you might come to the conclusion that doing it yourself is the best solution. It isn’t difficult, it won’t cost you much, and at worst, it won’t do any harm. If you decide to do it, kits and instructions are readily available online. Simply typing “How do I etch the VIN on my car's windows?” into Google will give you access to several VIN-etching kits and other information about accomplishing the task. The likelihood is you can etch the VIN on your windows as effectively as the dealership could even if you are not especially handy.

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Whether or not you decide to etch your VIN onto your car's windows is entirely your choice. It's not certain that VIN-etching will definitively protect you from car theft. And if you don’t do it and your car is stolen, you’ll never know if that could have been prevented by VIN etching. On the other hand, what harm could it do? Etching the VIN on your car’s glass won’t take you long, won’t cost you much if you do it yourself, and might actually have some benefit. So, like so many things, it is a personal choice: To etch or not to etch? That might not be the first question you want answered, but it might not be the last.

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