Buying a used car is often the most economical option, but you may run into some issues in the process – namely when it comes to the legitimacy of the seller. Everyone should know what to look for when buying a used car in order to help protect themselves from fraudulent sellers.
In addition to a thorough pre-purchase inspection, you’ll want to screen the vehicle identification number (VIN), license plate, vehicle history and seller verification to prevent vehicle title fraud (also known as title washing) and other common car scams.
Below, we explain how to gather all the information you can on a vehicle’s history, as well as verify your private seller’s ownership of the vehicle.
Check the VIN of Pre-Owned Vehicles
The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires nearly all vehicles to carry a unique identifier – the vehicle identification number. This 17-digit number, which is found in several places on the car, prevents the vehicle from being confused with any other (and can tell you a lot about the car before even running the VIN check).
What Are You Looking For?
The VIN number is commonly found on the driver’s side of the dashboard and can be read through the front windshield. If the VIN plate or sticker seems to have been disturbed, check other locations such as under the hood, in the trunk, or in the driver door jamb. This will indicate whether the vehicle advertised is the vehicle being sold.
The VIN number should match across every sticker. If certain parts, such as the engine do not match the VIN number, either the VIN is not native to the vehicle, or the engine has been replaced. Be sure to confirm a reasonable explanation from the seller.
We’re seeing new car scams popping up everywhere, which involve scammers targeting potential car buyers on sites such as Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other sites. Don’t be afraid to simply ask for the plate number or VIN of any car you’re interested in. You’re entitled to this information before moving forward.
Run a License Plate Search
While vehicle history searches are usually done via VIN, a license plate check can reveal the car’s history as well. When using a vehicle search service, legitimate sites and search engines will typically give you general vehicle information, such as:
- VIN data
- Vehicle history
- Accident and sale history
- Manufacturer recalls
- Safety information
- Salvage titles (if applicable)
- Estimated ownership costs
- Potentially some driver information (depending on the state)
Keep in mind that not all states offer free or paid license plate lookup services. In those cases, it's only law enforcement officials who can do such searches. If you live in a state that does not offer license plate lookups, you may call the non-emergency number of the local city, county, or state law enforcement agency and ask them to run a check to be sure that the vehicle is not stolen. That is the most information most law enforcement agencies within these particular states will offer.
Obtain a Vehicle History Report
One of the most important aspects of purchasing a used vehicle is its history: has it ever been stolen, wrecked, or had flood damage? If the vehicle was insured, more likely than not, this information will be available in the form of an official vehicle history report – a compilation of just about everything a buyer would need to know about the car, all in one place. If you’re car-shopping in person, you can ask for the official report from the seller.
Otherwise, use a reputable license plate or VIN check service. Or if at all possible, visit your local police or sheriff's office and inquire with them. Most of the time (again, depending upon the state regulations) law enforcement authorities will be more than glad to assist you within their given jurisdiction.
When Vehicle History Isn’t Available
Vehicle history may not be available if the previous owner did not have insurance or opted to pay out-of-pocket for the damages (which can happen in some cases).
Also, if you are purchasing the vehicle from an auto body and paint repair shop, it’s likely that the car has been through collisions and repairs – repairs that were probably made on-site. This means the damage may not have been reported to insurance, and the vehicle history report may not reflect the true history of the vehicle.
Protect Yourself Against Used Car Scams: A Checklist
Before you sign on the dotted line to buy that pre-owned vehicle from a private seller, keep these steps in mind.
Quiz the Private Seller
To get an idea of a seller’s legitimacy, quiz them on their own vehicle. Ask about service/maintenance records, how many owners it had, if it has a salvage title, where it came from and where it’s been, if any quality (or cheap) parts were installed, any existing warranties, if there’s a return window, and anything else you may be curious about.
Visit the DMV with the Seller
When purchasing from a private seller, ask them to accompany you to the DMV to transfer ownership. This is one of the best ways to ensure a legal and complete transaction, as DMV officials are well-equipped to spot fraudulent documents.
Protect Your Investment With a Full Pre-Purchase Inspection
At Euro Motorworks, our Master Technicians are here to help ensure you make informed, confident decisions before buying a used car. We go over the car with a fine tooth comb and let you know what you’ll have to address now and what can wait until later. Our findings could help you do further negotiating. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!
Do Your Car-Buying Research
Do your general online research through various sites – making sure to search the seller themselves. Get that vehicle history report and verification of your private seller’s ownership. Use the VIN and/or license plate number to do another free search and ensure you’re buying a used car the most secure way possible.
Don’t Let the Seller Rush You
These big purchases take time. When a seller wants to sell the pre-owned vehicle quickly, this may be a red flag. Take your time, do your research, get the inspection, and negotiate based on the information you receive. And really, make the most of your purchase that could benefit you for years to come.
Our Service Team is Here to Help You Make the Right Choice
Our team of master technicians is here to guide you through the inspection process and make sure that you make an informed, confident decision. Contact us today to request an inspection!