Forget the DNA Sample, Get Me the Vehicle ID

In this age of high-tech forensic science glorified by the spin-off-crazy CSI television franchise, the FBI ultimately arrested a suspect in an attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square with a decidedly low-tech automotive identification system that dates to the 1950s.

The auto industry created a system of vehicle identification numbers (VINs) in 1954 to identify individual motor vehicles. The U.S. started requiring standardized 17-character VINs in 1981. Since then investigators have found them incredibly useful in tracking down bad actors.

Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan and the suspect accused of using a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder containing a bomb to attack New Yorkers on May 1, may have thought he was covering his tracks by removing the vehicle identification number on the dashboard.

He was wrong. Nissan Motor (NSANY) had voluntarily stamped the VIN on the firewall separating the engine from the cabin—and had included a different serial number system (used to track inventory and identify stolen parts) on the engine, chassis, and transmission, says spokesman Scott Vazin. Investigators say they found the VIN on the Pathfinder's engine. Nissan says they must have found the serial number and then matched it to the VIN.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters that finding the VIN number "identified the owner of record, who in turn, as we know, sold it to the suspect." During the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case, detectives traced the VIN number of a Ryder truck that was used to carry the explosives. A suspect was arrested after returning to claim the deposit on the truck. Says Kelly: "Now this is déjà vu."

The bottom line: The vehicle number required by law on every dashboard is just one way of identifying a vehicle.

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