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Hurricane Sandy-damaged cars may be flooding into auto auctions

Superstorm Sandy

Richard Drew/AP

Cars are submerged at the entrance to a parking garage in New York's Financial District in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. New York City awakened Tuesday to a flooded subway system, shuttered financial markets and hundreds of thousands of people without power a day after a wall of seawater and high winds slammed into the city, destroying buildings and flooding tunnels.

Beware of super sales on Superstorm Sandy-damaged vehicles, say two national consumer groups. 

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) and National Consumers League (NCL) issued a warning to potential car buyers on Tuesday about the "tens of thousands" of flood-compromised cars changing hands and potentially entering the auto auction market.

"Flood cars are ticking automotive timebombs," said Rosemary Shahan, President of CARS. "Flood cars are inherently unsafe, particularly since all the electronic systems that control the engine, brakes, air bags, and other vital safety systems are hopelessly contaminated and will inevitably fail."

Even car buyers far from Sandy's wrath need to be on alert, say the groups.

“Flood damaged vehicles can be shipped across the country in a matter of days,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL. “Consumers throughout the US need to take specific steps to protect themselves from inadvertently buying these vehicles.”

CARS and NCL put together a list of tips and steps to take, before purchasing, to help avoid a potentially hazardous situation:

The history

  • Get the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).
  • Trace its history.
  • Use the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System ($3 to $13).
  • It's is a national government database, and the only one that requires, by law, insurers, rental car companies, salvage pools, junkyards, and recyclers from all 50 states report "total loss vehicles" within 30 days. Many are reporting daily.

The inspection

  • THEN... get the vehicle inspected by your own independent auto technician — this applies to cars from dealers, individuals and online (Car Talk's Mechanics files is their recommended resource).
    • Insist on seeing the title to the car before you buy.
    • Look for the words on paperwork that say "flood," "junk," "salvage" "rebuilt" "reconstructed" or another brand indicating it was severely damaged (a clean title does not necessarily prove the car is OK — titles can be altered to conceal issues). 

    Was this car underwater?

    • Tell-tale signs that your would-be dream car may have been submerged:
    1. Musty smell or "over-perfumed"  
    2. Mold/mildew
    3. Silt or residue in places like under carpeting, in the well where the spare is stored, or in the dashboard dials
    4. Title or registration histories indicating the car was in the flood area
    5. Car hesitates, runs rough, or shows signs of premature rust or corrosion in places where you wouldn't expect to see rust
    6. New cars or "certified" used cars where the manufacturer refuses to honor the warranty — check with the manufacturer if you're suspicious, and insist on getting a commitment in writing from the manufacturer itself that it will honor the warranty

    Bonus Internet warning

    • If you buy over the Internet — NEVER send money to someone over the Internet in exchange for a motor vehicle:
    1. Some sellers masquerade as the owners, when in fact they don't even have proper title to the car.
    2. The car may even be stolen — so you could lose both your money and the car, and may be subject to arrest for receiving stolen property.
    3. Insist on meeting the seller at your state's motor vehicle department to do the title transfer (or if you belong to AAA, you may be able to do the title transfer there).
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