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When car buying, beware of cloned 'flood' cars

Wednesday - 9/28/2011, 5:16am  ET

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- You saw pictures of them all up and down the East Coast -- cars underwater from Hurricane Irene and flooding.

And now, those cars may be at a used car lot near you.

The so-called "flood cars" are not new. Unscrupulous buyers lop them up, clean them up and put them back on the market with sometimes hidden damage that doesn't show up until miles later. The new owner can then get stuck with a lemon.

AAA's Lon Anderson says there's a new twist on the scam: cloned VIN numbers.

"Then you're gonna get a Carfax history that shows something entirely different," Anderson says. "There's not going to be any mention that it was totaled because of a flood or something."

Anderson says consumers should stick to sellers they know to be reputable, and make sure to have any potential car thoroughly inspected by a mechanic. The old telltale signs, such as muddy rugs or mildew in the trunk, are now easily hidden, and many flood cars have damage that is not evident.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than a half million flood cars hit the market.

Tips to avoid purchasing a cloned vehicle:

  • Check the vehicle's VIN with appropriate government agencies or your state bureau of motor vehicles.

  • Analyze the ownership pattern for any new or late model vehicle with no lien holder.

  • Be careful about purchasing a used vehicle from an individual running a newspaper ad and using a cell phone number.

  • Conduct a title search of the vehicle.

  • Look for information from a vehicle's current title, including the vehicle's brand history. Brands are descriptive labels regarding the status of a motor vehicle, such as junk, salvage and flood vehicles.

  • Look for any reports of the vehicle being transferred or sold to an auto recycler, junk yard or salvage yard.

  • Look for the latest reported odometer readings.

  • If possible, have your insurer inspect the vehicle prior to purchase.

  • Trust your instincts. If you don't like the answers or the deal sounds too good to be true, walk away.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)