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Yes you can (I'll answer my own question)
I've seen this debated/discussed on every online automotive forum, but never really knew the answer. Until today. I found the simple answer in plain English. From Cornell University Law School.
This became an issue for our 70 Mach-1 build because we had to replace the complete front clip. What to do about the VINs on the clip? It made no sense to me that tampering with these numbers would be illegal. Now I've confirmed that my way of thinking was correct; if your intentions are not to defraud, you're good to go. I'm posting this so that it may clear up this debate for others.
Here's the link to the original Cornell University article:
United States Code: Title 18,511. Altering or removing motor vehicle identification numbers | LII / Legal Information Institute


U.S. Code TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 25 > § 511
§ 511. Altering or removing motor vehicle identification numbers

(a) A person who— (1) knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters an identification number for a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part; or
(2) with intent to further the theft of a motor vehicle, knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters a decal or device affixed to a motor vehicle pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act,
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

(b) (1) Subsection (a) of this section does not apply to a removal, obliteration, tampering, or alteration by a person specified in paragraph (2) of this subsection (unless such person knows that the vehicle or part involved is stolen).
(2) The persons referred to in paragraph (1) of this subsection are— (A) a motor vehicle scrap processor or a motor vehicle demolisher who complies with applicable State law with respect to such vehicle or part;
(B) a person who repairs such vehicle or part, if the removal, obliteration, tampering, or alteration is reasonably necessary for the repair;
(C) a person who restores or replaces an identification number for such vehicle or part in accordance with applicable State law; and
(D) a person who removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters a decal or device affixed to a motor vehicle pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act, if that person is the owner of the motor vehicle, or is authorized to remove, obliterate, tamper with or alter the decal or device by— (i) the owner or his authorized agent;
(ii) applicable State or local law; or
(iii) regulations promulgated by the Attorney General to implement the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act.
(c) As used in this section, the term— (1) “identification number” means a number or symbol that is inscribed or affixed for purposes of identification under chapter 301 and part C of subtitle VI of title 49;
(2) “motor vehicle” has the meaning given that term in section 32101 of title 49;
(3) “motor vehicle demolisher” means a person, including any motor vehicle dismantler or motor vehicle recycler, who is engaged in the business of reducing motor vehicles or motor vehicle parts to metallic scrap that is unsuitable for use as either a motor vehicle or a motor vehicle part;
(4) “motor vehicle scrap processor” means a person— (A) who is engaged in the business of purchasing motor vehicles or motor vehicle parts for reduction to metallic scrap for recycling;
(B) who, from a fixed location, uses machinery to process metallic scrap into prepared grades; and
(C) whose principal product is metallic scrap for recycling; but such term does not include any activity of any such person relating to the recycling of a motor vehicle or a motor vehicle part as a used motor vehicle or a used motor vehicle part.
(d) For purposes of subsection (a) of this section, the term “tampers with” includes covering a program decal or device affixed to a motor vehicle pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act for the purpose of obstructing its visibility.
 

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Yes, you have answered your own question. The statute is not intended to prohibit repair.
 

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Just a word of caution, check your state laws too. While that IS what the federal code says, states have the right to make a more strict law. I'd also recommend documenting and photographing. Bottom line, cover your butt!
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Just a word of caution, check your state laws too. While that IS what the federal code says, states have the right to make a more strict law. I'd also recommend documenting and photographing. Bottom line, cover your butt!
Correct. I should have added that disclaimer but it's in the text: (ii) applicable State or local law
The few state stats that I have seen make it a misdemeanor though.
My brother was very nervous about those numbers when we swapped clips. He had heard the rumors that you're not allowed to touch them at all.
But, I gave him a "wake-up analogy".... Let's say, it's 1970 and this car is two weeks old with 500 miles on it, the owner gets in a wreck and gets hit hard in the left front. The area around the VIN tag is damaged and needs replaced. Under the "no touch rumor" law the Ford dealer would be prevented from repairing that almost-new Mustang. Now what, the car get crushed? Sometimes, the federal government does actually use common sense when it writes new law.
 
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