Polices say he used Craigslist, an Internet site where people buy and sell used goods, to purchase a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder from a private seller. Mr. Shahzad paid for it in cash, with 13 $100 bills. He outfitted the car with license plates stolen from a Connecticut used auto parts shop. And he removed the vehicle identification number from the dashboard (though not the engine or axle).
Nevertheless, Mr. Shahzad was quickly identified when authorities traced his e-mail to the Craigslist seller’s computer (who is not a suspect in the attack). That led to his arrest Monday night at New York's John F. Kennedy airport after he had boarded a flight to Dubai.
The incident illustrates how easy it is for terrorists and other criminals to buy and drive a vehicle anonymously.
“It’s certainly possible for someone to buy a vehicle anonymously,” says Keith Kiser, director of vehicle programs at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA).
They typically can't purchase through auto dealers. “There are rules preventing car dealerships from selling cars to people anonymously,” says Brad Miller, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the National Automobile Dealers Association.
But private sellers often have little motivation to report a sale or even know the identity of the buyer, adds Mr. Kiser.
“From my experience, it’s not uncommon for a seller to not know who the buyer is, to not ask. If I’m a seller, my interest is in selling the car, getting paid, and if you pay me cash, I may or may not know who you are,” he says. “That certainly happens.”
That’s exactly how Shahzad appears to have bought the SUV used in the botched bomb plot – anonymously, from a private seller, using cash.
Staying anonymous gets harder the longer a criminal drives the vehicle. They can't register it or get a license plate. Of course, in Shahzad’s case, there was little motivation in registering a vehicle that, police say, would be used in a car-bombing.
Even without such sinister motives, however, it's not uncommon for people to drive unregistered cars.
“Getting post-sale paperwork competed anonymously shouldn’t be possible," says Brian Ursino, director of law enforcement at AAMVA. "But people buy cars all the time, then just don’t complete the paperwork.”
Criminals engage in title skipping – buying a vehicle and selling it for profit without transferring the title to their own name, thus saving money on fees and taxes. Even noncriminals drive unregistered cars , says Mr. Ursino, a former police officer.
“It’s not all that uncommon that I stopped someone with [an unrelated] violation, and they provide paperwork from the previous owner. They’re not criminals, they just didn’t get around to it,” he says.
How long can someone get away with driving a car anonymously, with out-of-date paperwork?
“Indefinitely,” says Kiser. “Unless law enforcement has a reason to stop the vehicle and do a check, they could get away with it for a long time.”
Shahzad, he points out, had a license plate on the SUV used in the suspected bombing, making it look like a legitimate vehicle that law enforcement would have no reason to stop and check.
In this case, he adds, it matters little that the SUV’s registration was likely outdated. Enforcement varies from state to state, and in many cases, law enforcement has more pressing concerns than ensuring up-to-date vehicle registration.
“It comes down to question of how vigilant law enforcement is,” Kiser says. “If you have an unregistered or expired decal, it may be more obvious in smaller towns. But in New York City, my guess is there’s more vehicles floating by, it’s less obvious."