Beware of sweetheart deals When it comes to avoiding Sandy-damaged vehicles, Scafidi recommends heeding the old adage "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is." "If you're shopping for a 2010 Chevy ( GM) Tahoe that's normally $25,000 and someone offers you one for $13,000, a warning light should go off in your head," he says. "Usually, that's a sign that something is wrong." Check a car's background Both the NICB and car-checking service CarFax offer free online tools to help spot Sandy-totaled vehicles. The NICB's VINCheck lets you compare a car's Vehicle Identification Number to the consortium's database of totaled or stolen cars. CarFax offers a similar free Hurricane Sandy Flood Damage Check or more-extensive reports on individual cars for $40. Such tools aren't 100% foolproof. For instance, NICB's database doesn't include uninsured vehicles and lacks information on about 12% of insured ones. Have a mechanic inspect the car One of the best ways to uncover a Sandy-damaged car is to have a skilled mechanic check the vehicle out, a service many garages offer for around $100. Scafidi says merely telling a seller that you want a mechanic to inspect the car will often unmask crooks. "If you say: 'Can I run the car over to my mechanic?' and the seller starts foaming at the mouth about how this is a limited-time deal, don't walk away -- run," he says.
Look for hidden problems Whether using a mechanic or just checking a car yourself, a careful inspection can often uncover dirt, water stains or mold and mildew that scammers missed. Scafidi says the trick is to look for problems in obscure places. For instance, inspect areas where the roof fabric meets the car's body. Or, check under the seats where the floor's fabric connects to the dashboard. "You're looking for little pockets of water, dried mud or dirt residue that shouldn't be there," Scafidi says. For a complete list of areas to inspect, go to the NICB's site and download the group's Auto Salvage Fraud checklist.