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- Vehicle thefts rose in the U.S. in 2023, so take extra precautions to make sure you don’t buy a stolen car.
- Check the VIN, buy a vehicle history report and do a title search to check for red flags.
- If you suspect a used vehicle was stolen, don’t go through with the sale.
Many drivers choose a used vehicle over a new one for its lower price tag, but be careful — car theft is spiking, and you don’t want to purchase a stolen ride. In the first half of 2023, 500,000 cars were stolen, up more than 2 percent from the first half of 2022, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).
There is a chance that the car you are looking to buy is a cloned vehicle. Car cloning is when a car thief takes the license plate, vehicle identification number (VIN) and registration stickers from a legal car and places them on a stolen vehicle of a similar make and model. The thief also might use counterfeit documents to sell you a hot car.
Proceed with caution when buying from a private seller or a dealership. And if something feels off, look elsewhere. There are plenty of used cars on the market.
6 steps to check if the car you’re buying is stolen
To avoid the headache of purchasing a cloned car, follow these six steps.
1. Check the VIN thoroughly
You can check the VIN with government agencies and your state’s department of motor vehicles. You can also check a car’s VIN through the NICB’s VIN Check, recommends Renee Valdes, senior advice editor at Kelley Blue Book. This free service can inform you if there are any insurance records of a stolen car, including a vehicle that is not yet recovered.
“Some vehicles put the VIN inside the front driver door or on the windshield, and some owners can have the VIN etched on the window or inside the engine,” says Valdes. “Carmakers want to make it harder for thieves to steal VINs and create counterfeit ones.”
The VIN may also be stamped into the vehicle’s dashboard. Be thorough, especially with letters and numbers that look similar. Since the VIN should be in multiple places, examine each to make sure they match. If they don’t, they may have been tampered with.
2. Purchase a vehicle history report
Order a vehicle history report using the VIN, suggests Valdes. Companies offering vehicle history reports include AutoCheck or Carfax.
“These aren’t very costly, and they’re worth it,” says Valdes.
Vehicle history reports include information like:
- Service history
- Title information
- Liens held on the car
- Accident history and damage
- Previous owners
But while the report will list the number of previous owners, it won’t list the names of the owners.
“If the history is up to the present, there’s a good chance it’s well taken care of and not stolen,” says Valdes. However, if there are gaps in the history or it’s not up to date, that could be a sign that the car is stolen.
3. Do a title search
You can search for a car’s title through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. If the person trying to sell you the car isn’t the person listed on the title, you’ll know it’s a stolen car.
Having access to the car’s title can help you detect any discrepancies in what the seller is telling you versus what’s on the title, like if the car is a salvage and the mileage when it was last sold.
4. Ask the seller for the vehicle’s service records
If the seller can show you maintenance receipts, there is a better chance it is not a stolen vehicle, explains Valdes. Check to see if the VIN, make and model on the receipts matches the vehicle.
Compare the maintenance records with the vehicle history report and see if they match.
“A car is often a consumer’s second largest purchase,” says Valdes. “I always treated my car as if I would be selling it one day, which means taking good care of your vehicle and getting regular oil changes.”
Additionally, ask to see if you can see the previous bill of sale from when the seller first purchased the vehicle. It can’t hurt to request the seller’s contact information and how much they originally bought the car for. A legitimate seller shouldn’t hesitate to provide you with this information.
5. Ask your auto insurance company for an inspection
Ask your insurance company if it’s willing to inspect a car for safety and any red flags of fraudulent activity. You should still do your own due diligence, but your insurance company may be able to find additional information to confirm that the vehicle is above board.
6. Trust your gut
If the price is too good to be true, or the seller is overly eager to sell you the car and is urging you to skip steps in the car-buying process, trust your instincts. Between other sellers and used car dealerships, there are plenty of legitimate options out there.
You may notice differences between what the seller tells you about the car and what you find out in your research. That’s not always a red flag. Not every car owner keeps meticulous records, and if the vehicle has been bought and sold multiple times, there could be some missing information.
But if you spot discrepancies with no reasonable explanation, walk away.
What to do if the car you’re buying is stolen
If you find out if the car you’re buying is stolen, file a police report. Provide your bill of sale and any pertinent documents and information. Unfortunately, if the car you purchase was stolen or is a “cloned car,” it was never really yours.
This means you are not the car’s legal owner, and it will be confiscated and returned to the rightful owner. If a theft claim has already been issued to the insurance company, the car will go to the car insurance company. Any money you put into the vehicle will be a loss.
If you haven’t bought the car yet, walk away and don’t look back, suggests Valdes. Then, when it’s safe to do so, file a police report.
The bottom line
As thieves get craftier, stay alert about potential dangers and research the car thoroughly, says Valdes. This includes searching the VIN, ordering a vehicle history report and asking for additional documents and information to help you spot if the car is a stolen vehicle.