Following every major flood, scam artists try to pawn off flooded vehicles as standard secondhand cars. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, flood-damaged vehicles will be popping up at auto auctions, used car dealerships and in classified ads. Unsuspecting consumers, particularly those living in regions of the country unaffected by hurricanes or flooding, are led astray by fresh upholstery, new carpeting, and bargain prices.
After the owners of damaged cars settle with their insurance companies, vehicles are sometimes refurbished and resold. Flooded cars are often transported well beyond their original region after major storms to locations where consumers may be less aware of what warning signs to look for. Sometimes, a middleman buyer intentionally hides a car's history as a flood-damaged vehicle through a process known as "title washing" and sells it to an unsuspecting buyer in a state unaffected by the disaster. Among many possible mechanical problems faced by flooded cars, corrosion can take years to surface later that can cause electrical and mechanical problems. By the time they become apparent, the seller is gone, and the new owner is left with an unreliable vehicle along with no recourse against the seller.
Better Business Bureau (BBB) urges used car buyers to be cautious of unscrupulous businesses and individuals who may try to sell flood-damaged cars as standard secondhand cars, without revealing the vehicles' history.
BBB has the following tips for auto shoppers to determine if a used car is flood-damaged:
Ask to see the title. Check the date and place of transfer to see if the car came from a flood-damaged state and if the title is stamped "salvage." If you are still suspicious, purchase a vehicle history report of the vehicle, which should tell you if a car has ever been tagged as “salvage” or “flood damaged” in any state.
Carefully check the dashboard. Examine all gauges to make sure they are accurate, and there are no signs of water. Look for indications that the dashboard may have been removed.
Check the electronic components. Test the lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater, and air conditioner several times to make sure they work. Also, flex some wires under the dash to see if they bend or crack since wet wires become brittle upon drying.
Check the interior spaces. Look in the trunk, glove compartment, and beneath the seats and dash for signs of mud, rust or water damage. Check for open drainage holes in the bottom of the vehicle.
Check the condition of the fabrics. Look for discolored, faded or mildewed upholstery and carpeting. Recently shampooed carpets may be cause for concern. Carpeting that has been replaced may fit too loosely or may not match the interior color.
Get a vehicle history report from a database service. The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) free database lists flood damage and other information. But take note: NICB reports are only helpful if the car was insured. If the owner of an uninsured flood-damaged car tries to sell it on the open market and you’re the buyer, you may never know there’s a problem until things like the electrical system go bad.
Remember to check under the hood. Look for standing water, mud or grit in the spare tire wheel well or around the engine compartment under the hood.
Do a smell test. A heavy aroma of cleaners and disinfectants is a sign that someone’s trying to mask a mold or odor problem.
Research the dealer. Always check out the BBB Business Profile of the dealer at bbb.org.
Get an inspection. Before buying any used car, you should get a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic.
Click here for more tips on buying used cars.
To report a scam, go to the BBB Scam Tracker. To find trustworthy businesses, go to https://www.bbb.org.