Once upon a time – Not so long ago….

Hurricane Irma hit Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017 as Irma continued north, she ripped off roofs, flooded coastal cities, and knocked out power to more than 6.8 million people. As Irma roared north and she hit the mainland as a Category 3 storm, she overwhelmed the entire state with heavy rains and fierce winds.[i]

Meanwhile, recovery efforts were still under way in Texas where Hurricane Harvey destroyed 300,000 to 500,000 vehicles in Houston alone. Although fewer cars were estimated to have been lost to Hurricane Irma damage, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 vehicles were destroyed by Irma.[ii]

The after effects of these storms will undoubtedly result in thousands of flooded-out automobiles landing in surrounding junkyards – marked as salvage- or flood damaged.

Little Red Riding Hood, Beware!

Unfortunately, this opens up a new endeavor for dishonest car dealers who will buy these vehicles at auction or from the salvage yards. They will dry them out, clean them up, and sell them as used cars in neighboring states or in other countries. After Hurricane Katrina, flooded-out cars from Louisiana were sold to unsuspecting buyers as far away as Bolivia.[iii]

As insurance companies pay out the legitimate claims for flooded-out vehicles, indisputably some of these vehicles will also end up on the internet and at used car dealers in South Florida and every state in the U.S.

Salvage Title vs. Flood Title

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Consumer Protection Agency, a ‘salvage title’ means the car was declared as total loss to the insurer because the vehicle damage was so severe that repairing the vehicle is not possible or feasible.

‘Flood title’” means the car has damage from sitting in water deep enough to fill the engine compartment.  It is not illegal for these cars to be sold again, as long as the seller does not misrepresent or conceal the flood damage.

These cars might be great looking on the outside and inside, but the corrosive and abrasive mixture of water, dirt and sand can work its way into every nook and cranny of a vehicle and cause major damage.   Experts say the most vulnerable parts of a car are the engine, transmission and drive train, along with the fuel system, brake and power steering systems. Unless dirt and other contaminants are completely removed from these components, over time, they will cause increased wear and breakdowns. Engine computers, sensors and other electronics are even more susceptible to corrosion.[iv]

The Big Bad Wolf waits….

Con-artists register flooded and salvaged cars in other states with clean titles and then sell them to naive customers without disclosing the damage. This is called title washing.  These vehicles are sold multiple times from state to state and each time the vehicle is issued a new title, which may not reflect the salvage of flooded-out damage.

For example, a vehicle salvaged from Louisiana could be sold to a dealer in Mississippi who applies for a new title without revealing the vehicle’s true history. The Mississippi dealer then sells the clean-title car to another crooked dealer in Miami who sells the car as used with a clean title. When confronted, such a dealer just pleads ignorance.

Don’t let them fool you – no dealer will ever buy a car without first checking the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) against the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) VINCheck. Once a vehicle has been titled as salvage or flood, the vehicle’s original title will forever be reflected in the NICB VINCheck even a new clean title is issued in a different state.

Be suspicious…

You can use the same database as car dealers.   Get your car’s vehicle history report before you buy.   Using the vehicle identification number, located on the driver’s side dashboard, you can check the car’s history with the National Insurance Crime Bureau for free.   The report will include information on flood damage, if applicable.

However, there is a catch.   A vehicle that has had only minor flood damage or was not covered by a full coverage insurance policy may never have been titled as “salvage” or “flood”. In this instance, you may receive a clean check from the NICB. A thorough vehicle inspection would be the only way of knowing whether the vehicle previously had flood damage.

What to look for when buying a used car.

  • The smell of mildew, a musty or damp odor, or an overwhelming smell of car fresher.
  • Dampness under the carpet or in the trunk.
  • Upholstery or carpeting which is new or does not match the rest of the car interior. Also look for discoloration on the seats, seatbelts, door panels and floor mats.
  • Rust around doors, under the dashboard, on the pedals or inside the hood and trunk latches
  • Signs of moisture or haziness in the interior lights, exterior lights or instrument panel.
  • Rust on hinges or in the crack and crevices.
  • Vehicles sold and bought in multiple states.
  • Deals that are a too good to be true.

If the Big Bad Wolf gets you?.

In Florida, you can file a complaint with the Florida Office of the Attorney General. Find them on the internet at http://www.myfloridalegal.com or call 850-414-3300. But, perhaps, the best thing you can do is seek a Woodsman to help you.   So-called lemon laws offer legal recourse to people who have bought a malfunctioning car. But since lemon laws generally fault the manufacturer, not every state’s protections cover used vehicles. It may be well worth your while to consult a consumer lawyer to guide you to other laws that offer rights to used-car buyers.

[i] https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-response-news-stories/hurricane-irma#damage

[ii] http://fortune.com/2017/09/20/hurricane-irma-harvey-damaged-cars

[iii] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/21847398/ns/world_news-americas/t/katrina-ravaged-cars-being-sold-bolivia/#.WahgfciGOUk

[iv] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/26/how-not-to-get-duped-into-buying-a-flood-damaged-car.html