Scammers Dump Flooded Cars on Unsuspecting Buyers

How to spot storm-damaged flooded cars: Internet Scambusters #529

The devastating impact of winter storms like Hurricane Sandy includes a torrent of flooded cars offered for sale by unscrupulous dealers and individuals.

Sandy alone accounted for 230,000 flood damaged cars and although many of them are either totaled or openly sold as salvaged vehicles, others keep their dark secret until it’s too late.

In this week’s issue, we’ll tell you how to spot flooded cars and save yourself both financial and, potentially, human grief.

Let’s check out today’s…

Scammers Dump Flooded Cars on Unsuspecting Buyers

Widespread flooding and storm waters this winter are about to dump another painful legacy on us — flooded cars offered for sale but disguised to look like they’re in good condition.

Hurricane Sandy alone flood-damaged an estimated 230,000 cars.

In addition, according to one leading auto records company, thousands more cars are damaged by water every year and then returned to our roads.

Superficially, many of these may still look quite good and, inevitably, find their way onto the market in the hands of individual owners and unscrupulous dealers.

This represents a double threat to victims — not just the cost of putting right the damage that may not show up for months but also the possibility that hidden defects could make vehicles dangerous to drive.

So if you’re buying a car during the next few months, especially a newer vehicle being offered at a bargain price, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to check that it’s not flood-damaged.

Here are five key things you should do:

1. Check the Records

This scam is not only happening in flood-hit areas, for one very important reason: flooded cars classified as totaled have to be retitled and then listed as damaged, but not necessarily if the new title is issued in a different state.

However, checking the title and insurance record is still the first step you should take whenever you buy a used vehicle, especially online or from a dealer or individual you don’t know.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) VINCheck, set up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, maintains a database of totaled and damaged vehicles.

You should find the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) on a plate beneath the bottom of the windshield on the driver’s side. Check this number against NICB’s records.

More detailed reports might be available from paid services like They’ll run a check for free but then charge you for the information.

2. Ask Questions

Honest dealers should tell you upfront if the vehicle has been flood-damaged, even if it wasn’t written off by the insurer.

Others might not directly deceive you. That is, they won’t lie but they may not tell you unless you ask. So ask.

Request information about the vehicle’s history; ask to see copies of any maintenance and repair records; and specifically ask if it has been damaged or affected by floods.

If the seller doesn’t appear to know anything or if they’re evasive, take that as a red flag.

They may genuinely know little about the vehicle — but that’s all the more reason why you should.

3. Inspect the Vehicle

Put all your senses to work to check for warnings signs of potential trouble.

One of the most obvious signs is, of course, rust. First, look underneath the car and inside the wheel wells.

But dishonest sellers likely will do their best to disguise rust or clean it up in these places.

So you have to look for the spots they probably will have missed. For example: underneath the carpeting and screws in parts of the car that wouldn’t normally be submerged, such as in the console.

Likewise, mud and grit will possibly have been steam-cleaned away. But you still may be able to spot it in the trunk or in door panels, or in less accessible parts of the engine compartment such as in the alternator and behind wiring harnesses.

You should also check the wiring for signs of corrosion, water in the well below the spare tire, and look for bubbles in the paintwork.

Under the hood, check the consistency of the oil. If it looks milky, it likely has water mixed in with it.

In the cabin, look for items that seem to have been replaced when you wouldn’t expect them to be — like new carpet in older cars or cheap, non-standard audio equipment in newer autos.

Don’t forget to use your nose as well as your eyes. Does the inside smell damp or musty, especially in the trunk?

The scent of a powerful deodorant might be another red flag.

If there’s an air-freshener, remove it, open the widows and run the air blower for a few minutes; then close the windows, shut-off the blower… and sniff!

Use your fingers too. Do the carpets and upholstery feel damp? They may have been freshly shampooed– but if it’s a newer vehicle, why?

4. Take it for a Spin

You should always, of course, test drive any vehicle you’re thinking of buying.

When you suspect possible flood damage, you will likely hear more squeaks and squeals than normal.

Brakes might also be noisy and not as responsive as they should be.

And stuttering engines or intermittent electrical faults are a dead giveaway.

5. Get an Expert Opinion

If you have any doubts whatsoever about the car’s history or you’re not up to carrying out the rigorous checks yourself, get a professional to look it over.

Make sure the expert removes the wheels and checks the brakes.

Yes, all of this will cost you, but, in the longer run, it could also save you money and, more importantly, save lives.

Like all disasters, storms and hurricanes are a scammer’s delight — we’ll be taking a closer look at this in forthcoming issues.

Mostly, we tend to think of the immediate impact on the people who get hit, but flooded cars offer proof the scammers have all of us in their sights, wherever we are.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.