How To Avoid Purchasing A Stolen Vehicle

Don’t become a victim of auto theft by purchasing a stolen vehicle!

In 2023, more than 12,000 vehicles were stolen in Virginia. The main goal of car thieves is to make money, quite often this means reselling stolen vehicles. Here are some SIGNS that a vehicle may be stolen, how to AVOID purchasing a stolen vehicle, and what happens if you become a VICTIM of purchasing a stolen vehicle.

What are some signs that a vehicle for sale may be a stolen vehicle?

  • The price is too good to be true. Car thieves will try to sell a stolen vehicle as fast as possible and will offer a great price.
  • The seller says there is no vehicle title. NEVER purchase a vehicle without a title!
  • The person selling the vehicle is not the owner, or on the vehicle title.
  • The vehicle title is incomplete. Both the seller section and purchaser section must be filled out on the title at the time of sale. Car thieves will not put their real name on the title.
  • The seller does not identify themselves. Car thieves are experts at keeping their identity secret. Don’t be afraid to ask for identification to match with the title. If the car is not stolen the person should have no problem identifying themselves.  If you are able to safely take a picture of the person selling you the car, this may be useful to you in the future.
  • The seller of the vehicle only has one key.  This could be an indication that the vehicle was stolen because the key was left inside.

What are some ways to help avoid purchasing a stolen vehicle?

  • Don’t fall for a great story.  Car thieves always have a believable story of how they acquired the vehicle.  If they are not on the title they may say, “I’m selling it for my elderly parent.”  The only person who can sell a vehicle is the one listed on the title.  In order to sell the vehicle for someone else the title would have to be switched over into the seller’s name.
  • Never prepay or put a down payment on a vehicle for sale without inspecting it first and looking at the title.
  • NEVER purchase a vehicle without the title in your hand.  Car thieves will say they forgot the title or offer to mail it to you once you make additional payments.
  • Check the information on the title against the vehicle.  Is the mileage the same?  Does the Vehicle Identification Number, (VIN), match exactly?    Does the information on the title match the vehicle registration?
  • Check the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Certification Label, (FMVSCL).  This label is on the driver side inner door panel, where the door closes.  This label will have the full VIN printed on it.
  • Check the public VIN.  This is the VIN number on the driver side dashboard, where the corner meets the windshield.  Make sure this VIN  matches the title.
  • Check the inspection sticker.  If there is an inspection sticker on the windshield it may also contain vehicle information, to include the VIN.  All VINs must be the same.
  • Run a CARFAX® report prior to purchasing the vehicle,  CARFAX® is a company that will provide vehicle history reports to individuals and businesses.  Look for previous history of the service and maintenance on the vehicle.  The vehicle history should begin with the date and location from the manufacturing plant and continue to the most recent maintenance or event such as an accident.  If the vehicle you are about to purchase has a CARFAX® that begins with a high mileage, does not match the car’s odometer mileage, or is missing part of the vehicle history, this is a red flag.
  • Be cautious of social media purchases.  Car thieves use social media, craigslist, car selling apps, text messages, etc. to sell stolen vehicles. This is convenient for a thief because they never have to identify themselves. Always be cautious of purchasing a vehicle without knowing who the seller is.
  • Double check the source.  If the seller is using a social media site, do they have friends and followers or is it just a new site for the purpose of selling that one vehicle?
  • If things are just too good to be true or you have concerns about the vehicle, ask for assistance with verification.  Contact your local law enforcement agency if you feel you need further assistance.

What happens if you unknowingly purchase a stolen vehicle?

  • Car thieves can be very convincing and are great at putting you at ease.  Car thieves always have a great story and will seem accommodating and nice.  You may not know right away if you purchase a stolen vehicle.  However, once you attempt to register the vehicle  at DMV the vehicle will be flagged as a stolen vehicle.  Also, when you add the vehicle to your insurance the vehicle will be recognized by the insurance company as a stolen vehicle.  Once this occurs a police officer will be sent out to verify if your vehicle is in fact a stolen vehicle.  The vehicle will be visually examined and once it is identified as stolen, the vehicle will be seized and returned to the owner.
  • The very first question asked of law enforcement in these situations is, “How do I get my money back?”  If you are unable to identify the person who sold you the vehicle or provide enough information for the police to make an arrest, you will not be able to recover your money.
  • When purchasing a vehicle from a social media site, or by text, always keep screenshots and save any emails.
  • Thieves will immediately shut down any site they used to sell the stolen vehicle and any phone numbers they used to communicate with you once the sale is completed.  This is done so that law enforcement do not have the ability to track them down.   Help us by keeping any communication used between you and the person who sold you the vehicle.  It is very difficult to recover the hard-earned money that you lose to car thieves and often the victim will never get that money back.
  • Rely on your common sense and do not be afraid to ask questions of the seller.  Ultimately it is you who has to make sure your money is not going into the hands of a car thief!

Here are some additional resources that may be helpful: