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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/6/2009 12:10:13 PM ET 2009-02-06T17:10:13

Shopping for a used car is always risky. You never really know what happened to that vehicle before it went on the lot. Was it wrecked? Was it underwater in a flood? Was it totaled by the insurance company, then sold at auction and put back together again?

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Sixteen years ago, Congress ordered the Department of Justice to create a computerized database consumers could use to get this important information. Believe it or not, that system finally went on line last week.

“The government just dragged its feet and didn’t do anything about this,” says Deepak Gupta, a staff attorney with Public Citizen, one of three consumer groups that sued the Department of Justice to create the Web site.

The new National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) will let you use the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to instantly check a vehicle’s title and odometer reading and find out if it was ever totaled or reported stolen.

Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book 2009, calls this critical information that will let buyers avoid cars that could be trouble down the road. “If a vehicle has been in a major accident and not repaired properly,” Gillis warns, “there is a very good chance you will have mechanical problems and you could have some very serious safety problems, too.”

A death-trap on wheels
You don’t hear a lot about it, but rebuilt wrecks are regularly sold to unsuspecting buyers who pay more than they should for a shoddy repair job. “There are many documented case where people unknowingly bought used cars that were missing airbags or had frames improperly welded back together,” says Rosemary Shahan, president of CARS, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety.

The consequences can also be deadly. Bobby Ellsworth, an 18-year-old from San Diego, lost his life in 2003 while riding in his friend's 1998 Doge Dakota pickup — a salvaged vehicle that had been improperly repaired. The truck crossed the center line and crashed head-on into an oncoming car. Bobby died at the scene.

Bob Ellsworth, Bobby’s father, tells me he was shocked and angry when emergency workers at the scene told him what happened. Neither of the front air bags in the pickup inflated. They couldn’t. Both had already deployed in a previous crash.

Bobby’s father did some checking and found out what had happened to that Dodge Dakota. After the earlier crash, it was totaled by the insurance company and sold at auction as salvage to a backyard body shop. The shop rebuilt the wreck but never installed new air bags, as is required by California law.

“They just stuffed the old bags back in and glued the panels shut,” Ellsworth says.

Since his son’s death, Bob Ellsworth has worked to get NMVTIS going. He believes his son might be alive today if the system had been operational in 1996 as required by Congress. “It makes me sad and sick that it took so long to get this up and running.”

Right now, only 37 states are participating in NMVTIS in one way or another. And three big states California, New York and Pennsylvania provide the required information, but refuse to let consumers have access to it. Critics say these states don’t want to lose the millions of dollars they now make from selling this data to private companies like CarFax and AutoCheck.

“We are outraged that the state with the most vehicles is trying to limit consumer access to car safety data that could prevent accidents and save lives,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, an advocacy group based in California.

Consumer groups say if the holdout states don’t start participating fully, they’ll go back to court.

If it ever becomes fully operational, NMVTIS will have title information from every state motor vehicle department. Salvage yards and insurance companies will also be required to report monthly on all junk vehicles.

For the first time, state agencies will be able to see a vehicle’s history in every other state before issuing a new title. Right now, licensing agencies in various states are not linked together to share this information. This is a glaring loophole the bad guys use to their advantage.

This national system should cut down on the devious practice of “washing” a title. That’s when a vehicle with a title branded “salvage” or “junk” is re-title in another state where it’s easy to get a clean title. This paperwork shuffle makes it hard for a potential buyer to spot a problem.

My two cents

Before you buy any used car, do a database search. Start with the new National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which is $2.50 per vehicle. You should also check the National Insurance Crime Bureau site. These reports are free. Then if you want, check with CarFax or AutoCheck. Each system collects information from difference sources, so you may get different results. Often times, you can get the dealer to run a CarFax or AutoCheck report for you for free.

Just remember, no database is perfect. A clean report does not guarantee there isn’t some problem with that vehicle.

That's why you should never buy a used car without having it checked first by a reputable independent mechanic. Trust me, it's worth the money. A good mechanic can spot a car that’s been in an accident or flood damaged. It’s something you really want to know before you close the deal. If the seller won’t let you do this, walk away.

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