5 Ways to Spot a Car Damaged by Hurricane Sandy

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Hurricane Sandy damaged more than 250,000 automobiles when it slammed into the Eastern United States six months ago, and experts fear dishonest sellers are still trying to soak used-car buyers with vehicles hit by the storm.

"The kind of fraud we're most concerned about is someone taking a vehicle, cleaning it up and selling it to someone unknowingly," says Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "You think you're getting a perfectly fine vehicle, but you'll have problems with it a month or two later and have no recourse."

The NICB, the insurance industry's fraud-fighting consortium, estimates Sandy damaged at least 250,500 cars in 15 states and the District of Columbia when it hit the East Coast and areas as far west as Wisconsin in late October. Some cars sat for days in up to four feet of flood water, damaging components and leaving interiors moldy or mildewed.

While Scafidi says insurers paid to repair many vehicles and others wound up scrapped or sold overseas, the NICB suspects crooks have cleaned up some "totaled" vehicles and are selling them illegally in America without disclosing Sandy-related damage.

It is legal to sell Sandy-totaled automobiles if you disclose their stormy past. But dishonest sellers will often try to cover up problems by getting new car titles for affected vehicles -- a process known as "title washing."

Cars insurers have declared as total losses usually get words such as "Salvage" or "Junk" stamped on their titles to signal problems to anyone who buys the vehicles for scrap or rebuilding purposes; scammers will often buy water-damaged vehicles in one state, ship cars to states with lax rules and apply for new, "clean" titles.

Here are some tips from Scafidi and other experts on how to avoid unwittingly buying Hurricane Sandy-damaged cars:

Stick to reputable dealers
Storm-tainted vehicles often reach the market not through used-car dealers with permanent showrooms, but via Web-based scammers who agree to meet you at your home or in some parking lot.

"If you get a storm-damaged vehicle through a dealer, you can always go back and ask them to make it right," Scafidi says. "But if you buy one from a crook , you'll usually never see them again."

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