Purchasing a used car requires slightly more legwork than buying a brand-new vehicle. Used cars come with a history, and although that history is usually known and unexciting, suspicions may arise when buying off a small lot or from a private party. A potential purchaser who suspects the vehicle might be stolen can easily confirm it by conducting a vehicle identification number check at the National Insurance Crime Bureau website, through private services like Auto Check, or by asking local law enforcement agencies or the local department of motor vehicles (DMV).
The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
Every vehicle sold in the United States has a vehicle identification number, usually abbreviated as VIN. Since 1981, all vehicles are assigned a 17-digit code. The car’s VIN is unique to it, like a thumbprint. The VIN is imprinted on the interior dash of the vehicle, right next to the windshield, on a small plaque. The VIN also appears on all documentation related to the vehicle, such as insurance, registration and the title.
If a vehicle is stolen, the owner will report the VIN to the police, who will enter it into a stolen vehicle database. The owner will also report the theft to his insurance company. When the theft is reported to either or both of these entities, the theft is public record, and anyone looking to buy the vehicle can discover the theft by searching in a few different places.
National Insurance Crime Bureau VIN Check
The National Insurance Crime Bureau maintains a database of vehicles reported stolen to the insurers. Any member of the public can go to the Bureau’s website and enter a VIN to find out if the vehicle was reported stolen and not returned. The site will allow visitors to run up to five searches for no charge.
The database only covers vehicles reported stolen to insurance companies. If the car was uninsured or the owner never reported it, it will not turn up in the results. Additionally, the Bureau makes no independent investigation into the vehicles in the database, which means that incorrect or outdated information will still show up in the results.
Checking With the Local DMV
Some state DMV offices have VIN databases, such as Colorado and Florida. Their websites may have a search engine similar to that of the National Crime Insurance Bureau, but the information in these databases is provided by law enforcement rather than insurance companies. If the local DMV offers this service, the vehicle will turn up in a search even if the theft was not reported to the insurance company if law enforcement provided the info.
If the local DMV doesn’t have this service on its website, concerned buyers can still contact the DMV by phone or at a DMV office and find out the procedure for obtaining a criminal history of the vehicle.
Private VIN Lookup Services
Certain private services are available for those who want a complete vehicle history. These services allow users to run a VIN check and then issue a vehicle history report for a fee. These types of services include Auto Check, which is provided by Experian, and Carfax, both of which can run searches and provide online reports. Many large dealers will perform a Carfax search prior to selling a used car, but a private seller or a smaller lot seller may not do so.
These types of reports may include, not only a history of theft, but also information on accidents, flood damage, chain of title, service history and even airbag deployment.
Used car buyers can perform a stolen vehicle check online at the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s website. The local DMV may also have a VIN check system available, either online or in person.
- National Insurance Crime Bureau: VIN Check
- Colorado Department of Public Safety: Motor Vehicle Verification System
- Florida Crime Information Center: Stolen Vehicles Search
- Carfax: VIN Check – Protect Yourself From VIN Fraud
- Kelley Blue Book: Risk of a Fake Title
- Auto Check: What is a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)?
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: About vPIC
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.