Letter from Ohio: Beware fraudulent ‘flood cars’

by Alan Smith on March 28, 2012

It is Flood Awareness Week in a lot of states. Last year, April produced the second highest total of flood fatalities for any month of the year. Unfortunately, 63% of those who died were trying to drive through high water, which is not at all a good idea.

If the high water from the spring rainfall, or from hurricanes, doesn’t get you where you live, the impact of flooding can easily be brought to your hometown by unscrupulous folks who want to sell you flood-damaged auto vehicles.

In the 2005 hurricane season, around 600,000 automobiles were damaged by high water, and according to records kept by CarFax, nearly half of them were eventually presented for sale as used cars.  In 2008, Hurricane Ike affected over 100,000 vehicles in Texas, which were found dribbling back into the market over a period of months.

Those exposed to saltwater were especially troublesome, as salt and silt can eat away at the engine block to age it prematurely, even if it didn’t get inside any of the critical systems.  Any kind of water can damage safety features, such as the mechanical and electrical controls for anti-lock brakes, the sensors for airbags, and turn signals.  It can also rust engine cylinder walls and deposit chemicals, and other materials, which produce unhealthy levels of mold and bacteria.

In one well-publicized case, the engine of a Pontiac Grand Am blew apart while the car was being driven.  A check revealed that it had been flooded in Hurricane Floyd, declared a total loss, and had been given a salvage title.  A clean title was then secured in a neighboring state.

The FBI tracks ten categories of crime and only one of them is the exclusive domain of professional thieves – auto theft.  A vehicle is one of the most expensive things that can be stolen, and about five are stolen every day in Columbus even with all of the deterrent technology that has been developed in the last few years.  Vehicle salvage is a lot easier to acquire, and there is always a built-in arbitrage when buying at auction or from someone who knows about the damage and selling to somebody who is unsuspecting.

Salvage titles have helped considerably, but there are still many ways to get the salvage titles “washed”, by reregistering in a state that does not track this kind of information.  These vehicles are dangerous, and to the extent that damage caused by flooding or otherwise is undisclosed, these are all fraudulent transactions.

Consumers should have their radar up any time they buy a used car for flickering lights or other electrical systems, discoloration in the carpeting, or recently replaced fabric, rust in the trunk, mildew smells or flaky electrical wires.  Check the color of the automatic transmission fluid, the power steering fluid, and the coolant, and electrical connections for green, crusty substances in the junction blocks and plugs.

The safest thing to do is to get a reliable history on the car, or take it to a mechanic you can trust for an inspection.  Protect yourself from buying a flooded or rebuilt wrecked or stolen car by getting a title history report through a reputable company.

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  • John Adams

    IMPORTANT: Automotive Technicians & pre-purchase inspections are not equal. To properly inspect today’s used vehicles, you need an ASE Certified Master Technician to examine ALL mechanical & electrical components and systems, and a Body & Frame Specialist to determine existing and previous accident damage. nu00a0nRead the u201cTop 10 Used Car Buying Myths, Mistakes, and Pitfallsu201d at http://www.UsedCarInspections.ORG/top10.htm.

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