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SCAM ALERT: Car buyers beware of flood damaged vehicles

Ask the Better Business Bureau
BBB: Tips for a Fraud Free 2021
Posted at 2:03 PM, Sep 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 15:50:50-04

News of flooding from the recent storms that affected several states may lead to scam artists attempting to pawn off damaged vehicles as standard secondhand cars.

These vehicles typically show up at auto auctions, used car dealerships, and classified ads. Unsuspecting consumers, particularly those living in regions unaffected by hurricanes or flooding, are often fooled by fresh upholstery, new carpeting and bargain prices.

Katie Galan with the Better Business Bureau says, "once the owners of damaged cars settle with the insurance companies, the vehicles are sometimes refurbished and resold. Flooded cars are often transported well beyond the original region where the flood or significant storm occurred to locations where consumers may be less aware of the damage and warning signs."

Galan says, sometimes, a middleman buyer intentionally hides a car's history as a flood-damaged vehicle through a process known as "title washing", and sells it to an unsuspecting buyer in a state unaffected by the disaster. Many mechanical problems may occur in flooded cars, and the corrosion to the vehicle caused by floodwaters can take years to surface. When the issues become apparent, the seller is gone, and the new owner is left with an unreliable vehicle, along with no recourse against the seller.

The Better Business Bureau strongly recommends that used car buyers be cautious of unscrupulous businesses and individuals who may try to sell flood-damaged cars as standard secondhand cars without revealing the vehicles' history.

BBB offers the following tips to help determine if a used car is flood-damaged:

Ask to see the title. Check the date and place of transfer, verifying where the car originated. If the title is stamped "salvage" or arrived from a recently flood-damaged state, ask questions. Consider purchasing a vehicle history report, which includes information if the car has ever been tagged as “salvage” or “flood damaged” in any state.

Carefully check the dashboard. Examine all gauges to make sure they are accurate and there are no signs of water. Look for indications that salvagers may have removed the dashboard.

Check the electronic components. Test the lights, windshield wipers, turn signals, cigarette lighter, radio, heater and air conditioner several times to ensure they work. Also, flex some wires under the dash to see if they bend or crack - wet wires generally become brittle once they dry.

Check the interior spaces. Look in the trunk, glove compartment, and beneath the seats and dash for signs of mud, rust, or water damage. Check for open drainage holes in the bottom of the vehicle.

Check the condition of the fabrics. Look for discolored, faded or mildewed upholstery and carpeting. Recently shampooed carpets may be cause for concern. Carpeting that has been replaced may fit too loosely or may not match the interior color.

Get a vehicle history report from a database service. The National Insurance Crime Bureau's free database lists flood damage and other information. NICB reports are only helpful if the previous owner insured the car. If the owner of an uninsured flood-damaged car tries to sell it on the open market and you’re the buyer, 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 is a sign there may be a mold or odor problem.

Always check out the BBB Business Profile of the dealer at and find a reputable used car dealer near you.