ADOT: beware of flood damage when buying a used vehicle

Agency warns vehicles damaged in recent hurricanes can make their way to Arizona

Cars damaged by hurricane flooding may be making their way to Arizona.

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Cars damaged by hurricane flooding may be making their way to Arizona.

PHOENIX — After hurricanes that caused widespread flooding in Texas and Florida, Arizonans in the market for used cars have even more reason to pay close attention to a vehicle’s condition and history, especially in private sales.

As happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, vehicles damaged by floodwater are likely to find their way to Arizona and other states and offered to unsuspecting buyers.

If a vehicle is flood-damaged, the title should say “salvage” or “flood damage.” But scammers can and do fraudulently remove flood history from vehicle titles.

“We want to make sure potential buyers remain vigilant when looking at used vehicles and not sign anything until the vehicle has been checked over bumper to bumper,” said Willie Hall, detective sergeant with ADOT’s Office of Inspector General, which investigates fraud involving titles and vehicle sales. “Flood-damaged vehicles that have been repackaged and dressed up are a common scam after major weather events like what we’ve seen recently.”

Potential buyers should closely inspect vehicles and be prepared to walk away if things don’t smell right — quite literally in some cases.

  • Check out all of the vehicle’s nooks and crannies. Look inside under the carpet and floor mats and examine the trunk for dirt, silt and mold. Check under the dashboard and other hard-to-reach places as well. Criminals usually don’t clean all of those places. Finally, take a good whiff in those areas. Water damage leaves a distinctive smell.
  • Check the electrical and mechanical components. Water wreaks havoc on electrical systems, so check to see if any of those systems aren’t working quite right. Also check the engine for signs of rust or even random new parts. Get under the vehicle and check the suspension for water damage. Any of those things could be a sign that you’re in danger of buying a flood-damaged vehicle.
  • It’s always a good idea to have any used vehicle you’re looking at buying checked out by a trusted auto mechanic.
  • A vehicle identification number can be used to obtain the vehicle history through an online service that may charge a fee. This check can uncover a vehicle’s status as “salvage” or “non-repairable,” as well as maintenance problems, collisions, insurance claims and titles issued in other states.
  • Generally speaking, when it comes to buying a used vehicle in a private sale, it’s important to take the time and ask lots of questions. There are no dumb questions in a big purchase like this. If the seller is acting suspiciously, being evasive or uncooperative, walk away. Take the time to find the right purchase.

Additional tips can be found on ADOT’s website at azdot.gov/CarBuyingTips.

ADOT advises buyers they can seek help if they’ve been scammed, including fraudulent activity involving vehicle titles, registrations and driver licenses — a 24-hour fraud hotline is available by calling (877) 712-2370 or emailing fraud@azdot.gov. 

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