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August 5, 2021

How to check a used car’s history and avoid scams


Technology is changing the way most people buy new and used cars. But it also opened the door to a lot of new scams. We talked to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to find out how you can steer clear of the latest scams.

A good way to start is to look up the vehicle identification number (VIN), which will tell you a lot about a used car or truck. 

What is a VIN number?

It’s a standardized code that goes with everyone’s car or truck. A VIN can identify a vehicle’s manufacturer, body style, trim, and engine type.

How do I check a VIN?

Go to NICB’s VINCheck. You can run five free VINChecks a day.

What does a VINcheck show?

If you want to purchase a vehicle, run a check and it will identify when the car was built. Knowing that can help save you money when you buy a used vehicle, especially if it’s from another state. It can also tell you if a vehicle was stolen.

A VIN check also lets you know if a vehicle was in an accident or if it’s a salvage vehicle. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, a VIN could tell you if a vehicle had been damaged by flood. And if a vehicle is damaged by flood, sensors for airbags and bumpers can fail in an accident.

Where can I find a VIN?

A car’s VIN is often on the lower-left corner of the dashboard. Every document that goes with your vehicle will have your VIN number on it. It’s on your insurance documents, your title, and your registration. The DMV will have a copy, your insurer will have a copy, and your insurance card will have it.

How can the Better Business Bureau help?

The BBB can share the complaints and reviews they have for websites that sell vehicles. You can even see how that business handled complaints from customers.

What are some online car sales scams?

Scammers are using many of the most popular online marketplaces. Often, they’ll post a photo of a car and a description, but with an extremely low price. Or they’ll try to rush you into buying. Often, the car doesn’t even exist, it’s just a photo. Another trick is to use a fake third-party escrow site that the scammer says will keep your money safe. It won’t.

How can I avoid getting scammed when buying a car online?

Watch for red flags. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. A scammer will also be hard to reach and will try to avoid meeting you in person.  To pressure you, some scammers will say they have COVID, or they’re in the military and they’re going overseas soon. Anything to rush you or avoid letting you see the vehicle.

What else should I look out for when buying a car online?

Make sure to do a reverse image search on the vehicle’s photo. If you see the same photo on several marketplaces across the country, that’s probably not a legitimate offer. Or a scammer will ask you to pay with gift cards or wire transfers, which can’t be easily traced. You probably won’t get your money back if you pay that way.

What should I do if I fall for a scam?

Notify local police, the FBI, and the Federal Trade Commission. Let them know what happened. It will help them put a stop to the scammers. Also check with the Better Business Bureau before you buy.

Learn more about buying a used car.

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