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BUYER BEWARE: Flood-Damaged Vehicles Being Sold in the Wake of Hurricane Ida

Attorney General Chris Carr is advising consumers who are buying used cars to be wary of vehicles that might have suffered flood damage as the result of Hurricane Ida.  Flood-damaged vehicles are often sold at auction and then wind up on used car lots. Sometimes the vehicle’s title will indicate “salvage” or “totaled,” but sometimes the vehicle is retitled in another state and the damage on the vehicle’s title is not disclosed as required, a practice known as “title washing.”

“Consumers should always have a used vehicle inspected by a mechanic before buying,” said Attorney General Chris Carr. “This is even more critical now because an increased number of flood-damaged vehicles will be entering the marketplace.”

If a vehicle’s body, engine, transmission or mechanical parts have been submerged in water, it will probably have electrical problems, and the brakes, airbags and computer system may be impaired. Unfortunately, this damage may not be readily apparent, especially to the average consumer.

There are several things that you can do to avoid buying a flood-damaged vehicle:

  1. Check the vehicle’s history by going to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (www.vehiclehistory.gov) and entering the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). This is the only database where all auto insurers, salvage pools that auction off totaled cars, junkyards, recyclers and self-insured entities such as rental car companies in all 50 states are required by law to report total loss vehicles within 30 days. Check to see whether the car has been branded as “flood”, “junk”, “salvage”, “rebuilt” or “reconstructed”.
  2. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also maintains on its web site a partial database of vehicles affected by the hurricanes. You can search without charge by either the VIN or the HIN (Hull identification number)—bearing in mind that this information has not been verified for completeness or accuracy. When you search this database or review the vehicle history report, remember that neither is a substitute for a thorough physical inspection.
  3. Look for signs of flood damage.  A musty odor, water marks or faded fabrics may be a sign of flood damage. A strong detergent smell inside the car or in the engine may indicate that someone is trying to mask a mildew smell. Rust and metal flaking are another red flag. Check the upholstery, dashboard, glove compartment, trunk, inner doors, engine area, and under the seats and carpeting for mud or silt.  Look for drainage holes beneath the car. Test and retest the ignition, lights, wipers, air conditioner, heater and all accessories.
  4. Get the car inspected by a mechanic. Have the vehicle thoroughly examined by an independent mechanic before you sign a contract or pay any money. If the dealer refuses to let you do that, go elsewhere.
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