Floods, Fraudulent Titles and Frightening Automobile Failures

By: | October 25th, 2014

Along with the frequent floods occurring across the country, there’s also a flood of “totaled out” automobiles being sold in used car lots and traveling our roadways. Horror stories tell of vehicles disintegrating as they go, with parts falling out onto the road, endangering other drivers as well as the unsuspecting purchaser.

The weather has not been friendly in recent years and we’ve seen floods from coast to coast, sometimes with salt water, as in Hurricane Sandy, and other times with clay and mud (or even “sludge”). Either way, a vehicle that has been soaked is supposed to be deemed “totaled” by the insurance companies and the title is supposed to reflect that fact.

But motor vehicle laws vary from state to state, so titles can be “cleaned” fairly easily by unscrupulous dealers. Because waterlogged cars often have no obvious dents and bangs like those in accidents, it is easy to “shine them up” and transport them to a state with lax titling regulations.

Buying vehicles at auction that have been deemed a total loss by insurance companies is big business. There are often valuable parts that can be resold and some parts can be refashioned, and even as scrap metal there is good money to be made. Some companies are set up in the ready for the purpose of jumping on the nearest disaster, where vast parking lots of cars will be up for auction on acres and acres of land. Some of the vehicles will even be put on ships to unsuspecting countries in the global south.

So what’s a buyer to do?

Bills to create a federal standard for requiring flood notification on titles have failed to make it through Congress over the years. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System was set up to provide a database for reference, but its lack of accurate data doesn’t offer much in consumer confidence. It’s a good place to start, though. You should also check the VIN number at the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), Carfax, and AutoCheck. And look for titles that have been transferred multiple times and especially in multiple states, even if they don’t have a flood warning.

Sometimes even insurance companies can be the culprits. State Farm paid some hefty fines to reimburse consumers who unknowingly purchased flooded cars that had been deemed less damaged than they actually were. They assure us all that they are in strict compliance now.

I know; it stinks. We always have to be on guard to assure we’re getting what we bargain for. But no one else has it covered, so just be very aware of the details.

There are a few steps you can take to assure you don’t find your car disassembling as you drive down the road. You’ll want to investigate the nooks and crannies for signs of mud or rust. Let your nose perform an olfactory test under the carpets and trunk liner for musky or moldy odors. These moisture loving bacterial organisms can actually be toxic to your health and you don’t want them circulating through the A/C system, which you should turn on as a test of operating condition and aroma.

Look for rust underneath and be sure to check out all the instruments, such as windows, wipers, and electric seats. And after you’ve done your own inspection, get a reliable mechanic to give the guts a going over in addition to any diagnostic test done by a device. Nobody wants to get stuck with a lemon or be left with sour grapes from a bad deal. Just use caution and common sense and you’ll probably come out smelling sweet and groovin’ along to your favorite tunes.

Carol Mosley is a social ecologist, freelance writer, human rights activist, mini-farmer, and educator.

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