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Better Business Bureau offers tips to avoid buying flood-damaged vehicles

Posted at 2:17 PM, Sep 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-05 14:17:01-04

RICHMOND, Va. – The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning Virginians to be on the lookout for flood-damaged vehicles in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

“Following floods, scammers try to pawn off flooded vehicles as standard secondhand cars,” said the BBB. “Flood-damaged vehicles will no doubt pop up at auto auctions, used car dealerships, and especially in classified ads.

While state law requires water damage to be reported on a vehicle’s title, dishonest sellers can find ways to circumvent the law. More than 325,000 flooded vehicles were put back in use in 2017, according to CarFax.

Water damage can be hidden beyond visible signs like rust and mold. It could also cause a vehicle’s electrical systems to erode and fail over time. Computer sensors could be damaged and safety protections like air bags could fail in a crash, officials say.

The BBB has the following tips for car shoppers:

  • 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.”
  • Carefully check the dashboard and electronic components. 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. Test the lights, wipers, turn signals, radio, heater and air conditioner several times.
  • Check the interior spaces. Look in the trunk, glove box, and beneath the seats and dash for signs of rust or water damage. Check for open drainage holes in the bottom of the vehicle. Look for discolored, faded or mildewed upholstery and carpeting. Recently shampooed carpets may be cause for concern.
  • 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, 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 might be masking problem.
  • Research the dealer. Always check out the BBB Business Profile of the dealer at
  • 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.

Before purchasing a vehicle, customers are encouraged to check the vehicle’s history with the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). By submitting the vehicle’s make, model and vehicle identification number (VIN), the service can identify flood-damaged or unsafe vehicles prior to titling.

The fee for NMVTIS is $12 per vehicle. The service is available online or by visiting a DMV office.

If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you can help others spot fraudsters by reporting your experience.