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Buying a Used Car? Beware of These Common Scams

Updated: June 2019

Unlike a brand new vehicle, pre-owned cars can have a history of accidents or mechanical issues. Unfortunately, some sellers of used vehicles may tamper with the cars in an effort to conceal certain problems. It's important to learn the potential risks you may face when purchasing a pre-owned vehicle so you can lower the chance of buying a car with a hidden history. These tips can help you learn what to look out for:

Car with a for sale by owner sign.

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Odometer Fraud

Odometer fraud is an illegal practice that involves tampering with a car's odometer, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Car sellers may do this to make the vehicle appear as though it's traveled fewer miles than it actually has — which, in turn, may make the car more appealing to potential buyers. Fortunately, there are a few ways you may be able to see if the odometer has been tampered with. Here are some items you should check, according to the NHTSA:

  • Request a title or vehicle history report: Ask to see the vehicle's title, or request a vehicle history report through a verified service provider. You should then compare the recorded mileage on the document against the odometer reading to see if they match. If the mileage number is hard to read on the report, or if it seems tampered with, you may want to think twice about buying the vehicle.
  • Inspect vehicle parts: If a vehicle has less than 20,000 miles, it will likely have the original tires. Inspect the tires to see what condition they're in, and don't forget to check the gas and brake pedals — if they're extremely worn, this may be an indicator that the vehicle has been used more than the odometer suggests.
  • Check vehicle maintenance records: It doesn't hurt to request maintenance records, such as from an oil change or tire service, to see if the mileage on the reports appear to be in line with the odometer reading.

Cloned Vehicle Identification Numbers

Every vehicle is assigned a vehicle identification number (VIN) when it's built, says AutoTrader. This number allows the vehicle to be identified through its lifetime, but sometimes, car thieves change the vehicle's VIN to another similar, legally registered number. This can make it difficult for buyers to determine the car has been stolen, says AutoTrader.

When you're getting ready to buy a used car, look at its vehicle history report to help ensure the VIN hasn't been changed. And, while a car's VIN is typically printed near the base of its windshield on the driver's side, it may also be stamped near the engine's firewall or in the driver's side door jamb, says Edmunds. It would be a good idea to verify that all VINs stamped on the car match before you decide to purchase it.

Washed Titles

When a car is totaled, or has been significantly damaged, it is typically issued a special title. These may include salvage, junk or rebuild titles, according to the Better Business Bureau, and are issued so that car buyers know the history of the vehicle they're dealing with. Some sellers may try to acquire a clean title by registering the vehicle with a new state, where a titling clerk may not recognize special title symbols from another state, says U.S. News and World Report. To help verify that you are not buying a car with a washed title, be sure to look at the vehicle history report to check for recent title transfers. You may also want to inspect a physical copy of the title to see if it appears to be altered in any way.

If you feel pressured to act quickly when buying a used car, you may want to think twice. Take time to inspect the car and research the vehicle's history, and consider having it evaluated by a professional — it could save you frustration, time and money down the road.

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Our pages are filled with helpful tips and information about the topics that most of us face in our everyday lives. We focus on safety and maintenance issues with regard to your home, auto, apartment, motorcycle, boat, small business, finances and more. Please recognize that a particular tip may not be effective in every circumstance and that taking preventive measures cannot guarantee any outcome. We encourage you to use your own good judgment about what's appropriate for you and your property and always consider safety.
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