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Don't buy a car without doing basic online research

Thoroughly researching a car's history is often as

Thoroughly researching a car's history is often as simple as typing a Vehicle Identification Number into the search box. Credit: AP, 2011

The time to do your homework is before you buy a car. Not afterwards, when you discover that the car was not as represented. A good portion of my time is spent working directly with buyers, as well as with attorneys that are working for buyers who didn’t get what they bargained for.

The frustrating part is that there is so much public information available online that many of these problems could have been avoided with a simple internet search. Nowadays you can do your diligence not only on the vehicle, but on the seller as well.

Start with the vehicle. Often it’s as simple as putting the cars VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) into your search box and pressing ENTER. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this and found six or more advertisements going back many years for the same exact car. The interesting part is that the descriptions in the advertisements will range from “Lots of Rust. Needs complete restoration” to “Rust free. Excellent daily driver.”

Of course, the car could have been restored between the time the first ad ran and the time the last ad ran. Or perhaps not. But it is certainly a red flag.

Another piece of information that will often pop up in a “VIN search” is an auction history, should there be one. Now, it’s no big deal to find out that the 1967 “Big Block” Corvette that you just purchased half-way across the country was sold six months prior at a major classic car auction. But it is a big deal to find out that it was included in a large block of Hurricane Sandy “flood cars” that were liquidated (no pun intended) by the insurance companies in an online auction. If you think this is a rare occurrence, think again. I’ve been involved in at least a dozen cases of these cars in the past year. Apparently, the temptation to make a few quick bucks is too tempting for some people to pass up.

The cars’ VIN is the easiest way to look for valuable information. But often you have to dig a little deeper. A search of the major internet web sites and publications that specialize in classic car sales will often turn up information about the specific car that you are considering purchasing.

Due diligence can also be done on the seller of the vehicle…hopefully before you buy the car. This is your chance to play detective. Do an internet search of the sellers’ name. If it’s a common name, narrow the search results by putting in the sellers’ state, or town. I even combine the sellers’ name with the car they are selling, such as “Smith 1931 Model A.” Or “Smith Classic Car.” Bad news travels fast, especially on the internet, so try terms such as “Smith Classic Car Complaints.”

I’m involved in a case right now involving an out-of-state buyer of a 1969 Pontiac GTO. He bought the car sight unseen, and when it arrived at his door it was far from the “documented, one owner, rust free, complete matching-numbers” car that he thought he had purchased. It was an undocumented, multiple owner, rust bucket, with no matching numbers. An internet search of the sellers’ name turned up the following: “His indictment was in 2012 was for fencing, conspiracy, and receiving stolen property. There were 32 people indicted in this multi-million credit card scam.”

I asked the buyer why he didn’t do a little investigation on the internet before he bought the car. His answer was “I don’t like using computers.”

I asked him how he found me.

His answer: "On the internet.” 

The truth of the matter is that once you’ve bought and taken delivery of a collector car, you have very little recourse against the seller. Unless it is a clear case of fraud, and the dollar value is high enough, most district attorneys are far too busy to clean up your mess by going after the seller criminally. That leaves you the option of filing a civil suit against the seller.

You will most likely have to bring suit in the jurisdiction where the seller resides. Most Small Claims Courts have limits ranging from $1000 to $5000, so if your damages are significantly more than that, and they usually are, you’ll need an attorney. That will usually cost you about $3000 just to get started, and it will go up quickly as they do work, and make appearances on your behalf.

The internet has made it very easy to do your homework. There are no guarantees that it will eliminate all of your potential problems, but if it saves you from making one mistake, it is well worth the time invested. And if you’re on of those people who “Doesn’t like using computers,” hire a 12 year old and let them do it for you.  

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