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Purchasing a Vehicle

How to Check if a Car is Stolen Before Purchasing a Vehicle

Before purchasing a vehicle, one must perform due diligence to ensure the transaction is above board. The obligation falls on the buyer, considering most criminals have devised clever ways of covering their tracks after the sale.

Aside from the consequence of returning a stolen vehicle, it may also entail criminal liability for any acts committed. It will be up to the purchaser to prove they did not know the car was stolen in the first place.

Sometimes, it is easy to spot something suspicious when buying a new vehicle. The vehicle registration book and card information may not be consistent with what’s on the statutory plates.

Other times, the person selling the stolen car is more cunning, making detecting foul play a bit trickier. Regardless, there are a few ways to check if a vehicle has been stolen.

check stolen vehicle before purchase

Verifying the Vehicle’s Ownership and Title

Car titles are legal certifications that illustrate the ownership of a vehicle within the United States. Purchasing a vehicle that does not have a title is not permitted because it implies the car may have been stolen.

Car titles illustrate proof of ownership. They vary depending on the state of residence but include the Vehicle Identification Number, its make, and year.

Considering the VIN allows the buyer to check the vehicle history, one can verify the car’s background to ensure above-board transactions.

Car titles are evidence of ownership, as well, so they are not provided to those still financing a loan. It allows confidence when purchasing the vehicle because it is fairly certain the individual or entity selling the car is the rightful owner.

Check the Vehicle Identification Number

By entering the VIN on third-party search platforms, it is possible to do a vehicle history check. The search should provide access to state registries, law enforcement-operated stolen vehicle databases and insurance information.

Even if the vehicle was stolen from overseas, it should be possible to view it as suspicious. Most countries also have a database of public records tied to insurance companies and police records.

A reasonable seller will not hesitate to give potential buyers the necessary information to verify the vehicle’s history. After accessing the car’s full history, it also allows the buyer to negotiate on price.

Make Sure VINs Match All Over a Vehicle

The VIN has to match what is in the registration book as well as the card. The vehicle may have been involved in suspicious activity if there are any inconsistencies.

Most vehicles also have the VIN label in front of the engine block, behind the windshield on the dash, inside the doorjamb, and directly above the tire. Take time to compare these numbers and ensure they are the same.

If the numbers differ, it could be stolen; therefore, it is not worth the price. It would be advisable to inform the authorities as soon as possible should this be the case.

There are other checks, as well, that one can perform to ensure the VIN is valid. It should be 17 numbers long, which means it will only decode if it is short and long. If the VIN also contains illegal characters, the VIN will also not be decoded.

Search the National Stolen Vehicle Database

Law enforcement agencies maintain a database of stolen vehicle information. This repository has information on stolen vehicles’ make, model, year, and identification numbers.

It could also have data on the vehicle’s owner along with the details of a crime. The police may use this platform to track and update information on stolen vehicles to assist them in recovery efforts. Aside from the police, one agency specializing in collecting stolen vehicles is the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

It receives reports of stolen vehicles from insurance companies and members of the public to help track them. This information is updated in the police stolen vehicle database as well as the agency’s.

Interested parties that would like information on the stolen vehicle database in any state may contact the NICB, the state Department of Motor Vehicles, or the State Highway Patrol.

Check for Signs of Tampering or Alteration

Considering that the car history report is a way to check if a car is stolen, some thieves may illegally replace VIN plates. It dissociates the vehicle from its previous record, but there are ways to tell if the VIN plates have been tampered with.

Physically check the VIN label on the specified areas to determine they have not been altered. The label should not have any scratches, marks, or tears which imply it has been changed. It should not have any loose corners on the vehicle, as the VIN label should be appropriately secured.

Screws or any plugs on it may also be a red flag if they make the numbers illegible. That could be an indicator the seller of the vehicle is trying to mask the number to buyers. If the seller passes all these tests, buyers may still run their fingers over the label to ensure it is smooth. Any recent blemishes or pimples signal tampering.

Use Your Gut Instinct and Common Sense

Purchasing a vehicle is a significant yet common everyday activity. These transactions involve thousands of dollars, meaning buyers must perform their due diligence before partaking in any transaction. Unfortunately, criminals are also taking advantage of developing technology to mask their approaches.

One can only perform so many checks with the VINs and police databases; however, the decision to purchase remains with the owner. That leaves gut instinct and common sense. If what the seller claims concerning a particular vehicle does not track, it would be best to back away from the sale.

Buyers can pay attention to how the seller presents and the impression they create. Those who are spotty with information or who need to communicate better during the transaction process are not great candidates for vehicle purchases. If the vehicle is priced well below market prices, chances are that it is too good to be true.

There are rare cases of distress sales when buyers get a genuine gem, but this is not the case often. Sadly, after sales are made, the liability of the vehicle rests with the new owner, so it pays to listen to that inner voice before making any commitment.


Purchasing a vehicle is a sensitive issue, especially when stolen car statistics are quite high. There are ways to safeguard one’s investment, though, which entails how to check if a vehicle has been stolen. The car title and VIN are great first go-to’s for a prospective buyer because they illustrate the owner and vehicle history.

These should be mandatory due diligence options for individuals, and any sellers that refrain from providing them are an immediate red flag. The buyer may also go a step further and check the VIN labels on the vehicle. Signs of tampering, like screws on the numbers or curved edges, may imply it has been replaced.

Buyers can also get information from the police stolen vehicle database via the state highway patrol, NICB, or local law enforcement.

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