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How to tell if you’re buying a stolen car

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With the price tags of cars at a record high, you might be looking into buying a used car. However, you’ll want to proceed with caution. Car theft in the U.S. is spiking. In 2020 there were 880,595 cars stolen in the U.S., up 10.9 percent from 2019, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).   

There is also 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 when trying to sell you the hot car.  

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 (DMV). You can also check a car’s VIN through the NICB’s VIN Check, recommends Renee Valdes, the advice editor at Kelley Blue Book. This is a free service and 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.”

2. Purchase a vehicle history report 

Order a vehicle history report using the VIN, suggests Valdes. Popular companies that offer this are AutoCheck or Carfax. “These aren’t very costly, and they’re worth it,” says Valdes. 

Vehicle history reports include a variety of information, like: 

  • Service history. 
  • Title information. 
  • Liens held on the car. 
  • Accident history and damage. 
  • Previous owners. 

Here’s the thing: 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

Searching for the title of a car can help you find out if the car is a salvage, the mileage when the vehicle was last sold and the name of its last owner. If the person trying to sell you the car isn’t the same person listed on the title, then you’ll know it’s a stolen car. 

Having access to the title of a car can also help you detect any discrepancies in what the seller is telling you and what’s on the title. You can search for a car’s title through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

4. Ask the seller for the vehicle’s service records

If the seller can show you the maintenance receipts, there is a better chance it is not a stolen vehicle, explains Valdes. Check to see if the VIN on the receipts match the vehicle. 

You might also be able to see if the seller took the car for scheduled maintenance from the vehicle history report and check if it matches the maintenance receipts. “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.” 

Along the same lines, ask to see if you can see the bill of sale from the seller and the seller’s driver’s license. It can’t hurt to ask for their contact information and home address as well as how much they bought the car for. If the seller is legit, they won’t hesitate to provide you with this information.  

5. Ask your auto insurance company for an inspection

Your insurance company might be open to inspecting a car for safety and any red flags of fraudulent activity before you purchase. Call your insurance company to see if this might be an option. 

Some states and insurance companies might require an inspection of your car when you are switching car insurance carriers. This typically happens before the insurance company approves your auto insurance policy. And usually, it is only required if you are purchasing certain types of coverage, such as collision coverage or comprehensive coverage.  

6. Trust your gut

If the price is too good to be true, the seller is overly eager to sell you the car and is trying to urge you to skip crucial steps in the car-buying process, trust your instincts. You may notice some discrepancies between what the seller is telling you about the car and what you find out in your research — if you do and there’s 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 and is a “cloned car” of one with an illegal VIN, the car was never really yours. 

In turn, you not only do you not have ownership of the car, but it will be confiscated and returned to the rightful owner. If a theft claim has already been issued to the insurance company, then 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 are getting craftier, it is important to stay alert about potential dangers and research the car thoroughly, says Valdes. This includes doing a search on the VIN, ordering a vehicle history report and asking for additional documents and information to help you spot if the car is stolen. “Don’t back down from taking every precaution, even in this white-hot used car market,” says Valdes.

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Written by
Jackie Lam
Contributing writer
Jackie Lam is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Jackie writes about auto loans.
Edited by
Auto loans editor