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Few protections from stolen cars, but a few tips



Updated: July 1, 2012 11:44AM

Dear Readers: The Fixer recently wrote about Alfred Sumler and Valerie Williams, a husband and wife from Richton Park who had bought a used Lexus GS 430, only to be told three months later that their “dream car” was hotter than they thought.

The couple was stunned when authorities in Illinois told them the car had been stolen from Wisconsin and resold to a used car dealer in Chicago. The Lexus was seized, and they were out the $10,094 they had spent, plus $1,000 or so in repairs, extra keys and tires.

Alfred had assumed that a car dealer with a fancy website and place of business wouldn’t sell a stolen car.

“That’s why we went to a dealership instead of buying from Joe Schmoe on the street,” Alfred told The Fixer.

Luckily, this story had a happy ending. The Fixer, the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the Illinois Secretary of State police advocated for Alfred and Valerie, and the car dealer ended up refunding their money.

But Alfred and Valerie’s nightmare got The Fixer thinking: If car dealers aren’t required by law to make sure a used car is not stolen — and there’s no mechanism for them to check — what protection does a consumer have? And what about other stuff that might be wrong with a used car, such as having been in a major accident or a flood?

Just this week, The Fixer heard from an Evanston reader who lost $1,600 when he bought a used minivan that turned out to be stolen.

The people we spoke with at the Illinois Attorney General’s and Secretary of State’s offices said it’s unusual for a used car sold through a dealer to come up as stolen. It’s much more common for a stolen car to be sold informally to an unsuspecting buyer.

Here are tips to protect yourself:

† Make sure the title and registration match the seller’s name and address. Be cautious about any seller who has no fixed address, place of employment or phone number.

† Ask the seller about any past financing or insurance on the vehicle and verify it.

† Make sure the VIN plate is secure, with no loose rivets (which could indicate a different VIN was substituted). Make sure the VIN matches the one on the title.

† Beware of an excessively loose ignition switch or only remade keys, not originals.

† If the car does turn up stolen, file a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, which can try to intervene informally or consider litigation, if necessary.

It’s important for used-car buyers to find out as much as they can about the car’s history. That can be tough because each state has its own rules for cars that have been in a major accident or suffered flood damage. Shady sellers know how to “wash” a car’s title by registering it in a state that has lax regulation before selling it in another state.

One effort to stop that is a national database — the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System — which consumers can access at to find out whether a used car has a “salvage,” “junk,” “flood” or other designation. The search is free, and a full report can be purchased at minimal cost through one of the system’s partners, which are on the website.

The database also contains information about stolen vehicles, but right now only state agencies can access that, said Ian Grossman, vice president of the nonprofit that administers the database. There’s a push to get the U.S. Department of Justice to give clearance to make stolen vehicle info available to consumers (let’s hope).

The database is not yet complete, and Illinois is one of about a dozen states still in the development phase because of a lack of funding. The Secretary of State’s office here checks all title applications against the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System to catch stolen cars, SOS spokeswoman Beth Kaufman said.

Grossman told The Fixer that unfortunately, there are lots of “ticking time bombs” in the used car market. Eventually, when all states input their data and check each new title application, fraudsters will have a tougher time washing titles.

Getting the runaround on a consumer problem? Tell it to The Fixer at, where you’ll find a simple form to fill out.

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