Pssst: Wanna (not) Buy a Stolen Car?

By: Michael Trusthold

Would you buy a used car--with cash--from someone you just metin the bar, and who walked you down a dark alley to show you thecar? Not likely. How about from a well-dressed, friendly,middle-aged man or woman, who placed a classified ad in yourlocal newspaper, and who meets you midday at a restaurant ofyour choice?

Oops! You may be more likely to be cheated by sellernumber two. That's the story of Jennifer Warwa, who bought aminivan and had her mechanic examine it. The mechanic later saidhow shocked he was that Jennifer had been scammed:

"Because I met the gentleman who was selling the vehicle. Veryclean cut. In his fifties. Very soft spoken.... And he went withher to get it inspected. There was just no sign that was thekind of person he was" the mechanic told CBC's Marketplace.

A few months later, Jennifer got a phone call from the police.They said she had purchased a stolen minivan, and they werecoming to seize it. She was so upset, she tried to hide the vanfrom the police. Eventually they caught up with her and sheended up paying for a year and a half for a $5,000 bank loan ona van she could not drive. Ouch!

Jennifer was just one victim in the chain that included theoriginal owner, the insurance company, other consumers whoseinsurance rates keep rising, and the police, who spend thousandsof hours tracking thefts. According to the FBI, a vehicle isstolen about every 25 seconds in the USA, amounting to an $8billion yearly problem.

Here's how these scams often work. Thieves target particularcars: for their value, their ease of resale as a whole or inparts, or because they are easier to steal. Years ago, most carswere stripped for parts, including unusual parts such asairbags. But today some thieves are so brash they sell carsthrough newspapers.

This newer scam is called "VIN cloning", because the VehicleIdentification Number is stolen from another car. Criminalsobtain VINs by copying them from the dash of cars in parkinglots--even at dealerships. Some even physically remove the VINplate from vehicles in auto salvage yards that allow customersto "pick your own parts." (They do not mean that literally!) Thenumber is used to falsely obtain new ownership documents, ordocuments are forged. Either way, a cloned VIN allows them totransform stolen cars into pseudo- legal vehicles that can beofficially titled and sold. Many thieves work across statelines: cars may be stolen in the East, registered in theMid-West, then sold in California. Scary!

Here's what you can do to avoid buying a stolen car:

** Check the VIN on the dash against the VIN in the driver'sdoor jamb, under the hood, and on the paperwork

** Use the VIN to get the car's history at carfax.com for about$20

** Ensure title and registration documents match the name andaddress of the seller

** Is the car from out of state?

** Be suspicious if you must meet a private seller in a parkinglot. Better to see that they live at the address where the caris registered

** Has the vehicle recently been transferred?

** Does the seller use a home or work phone number, or just acell?

** Is the selling price oddly low?

** Be warned that some used car dealers are getting scammed, too

** Pay by certified cheque or money order, not cash.

Keep in mind that most private sellers are not thieves, butrather honest, regular folks like you. And prices do tend to belower with private sales. So if you follow my advice, you cangreatly improve your chances of driving away with a "genuine"used car

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