• Buying Guides

How To Check if a Car Has Been Stolen

By Zac Estrada | June 6, 2022

Few people would knowingly buy a stolen car, but a potentially surprising number get a vehicle that's the subject of theft. And that scam some sellers practice can create a world of problems.

Vehicle theft is rampant in the US despite decades of efforts from automakers, insurance companies, and law enforcement. And while technology and changes in car manufacturing have made it harder to change a vehicle's identity, it's still possible to unknowingly land yourself in a used car illegally taken from its previous owner.

A stolen car comes with issues both for the vehicle and its new owner. And for the prospective buyer to know before signing the bill of sale, a future vehicle purchase was stolen.

So with the whirlwind of events involved in looking for a used vehicle, it pays to take a few minutes to ensure that you don't buy a stolen car. Here are ways to find a car's history, avoid buying a stolen vehicle, and prevent a few headaches down the road.

Locate the VIN

The key to uncovering a vehicle's history is the vehicle identification number or VIN. Don't seriously consider any car without getting this number because it's necessary to run vehicle history checks. It's the easiest way to determine if the vehicle was ever stolen, in a crash, flood, repossessed, or declared a total loss.

A VIN is a 17-character code that car manufacturers must put several places in a vehicle. The easiest to locate is generally on the dashboard and the side of the driver's door. The code on the dashboard is behind the windshield on the bottom of the driver’s side. The VIN also appears in the rear wheel wells, the engine block, beneath the spare tire, and the frame under the hood. And thieves tend to tamper with stickers or the numbers themselves to cover their tracks.

Any seller should be willing to give you the VIN and any service record that should have it printed on them, but the number should also be on stickers placed all over the car. And if there are any discrepancies between records or missing stickers where there should be a VIN, red flags should start popping up in your head.

Know the Warning Signs of a Stolen Car

Even before running a vehicle history check, there may be signs that you are dealing with someone selling a stolen vehicle or otherwise not fairly dealing with you. Red flags include the seller not allowing you to inspect the car or verify the VIN.

One potential red flag is a private seller who wants to sell the car at a location other than their home, such as a parking lot. Another flag is the seller pushing to close a deal quickly, such as dropping the sale price when you say you want to take the car for an inspection.

There are also little things to look for on the vehicle itself.

  • If the license plates don't match, one is missing in a state that requires both front and rear plates, or the registration tags aren't current, ask why.
  • On cars from the 1990s and later, stickers with the VIN should be under the hood, somewhere on the inside of the trunk or hatch, and on the insides of the doors. If the only place is under the windshield, ask why — and having the car repainted isn't the catch-all answer some sellers think it is.
  • And if there's only one key or different keys for the locks and ignition, that's a sign the car was potentially tampered with and, therefore, stolen.

It's also crucial to get a bill of sale after completing the purchase. As well as the VIN and vehicle description, the statement should include the buyer and seller's name, addresses, and the selling price.

Both parties should also sign it. Then, request the seller's driver's license or other government ID to verify the seller's name and identity. If a seller refuses to complete a bill of sale or show their identification, it could be a sign of dishonest dealing, including selling a stolen vehicle.

Check With the National Insurance Crime Bureau

With the car's VIN, you can quickly check whether the vehicle was stolen using the VINCheck tool provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau or NICB.

Navigate to the NICB website and enter the VIN on the VINCheck service page. Once submitting the form, the VIN lookup will determine whether it’s associated with a reported stolen car. If the vehicle is in the database, you can call the NICB or law enforcement to report that a stolen vehicle is for sale. However, the NICB advises not to confront the seller if a VIN comes back associated with auto theft.

For a fee, you can use paid sites such as Carfax to get a more detailed vehicle history report. These services can provide more insight into where a vehicle was registered, whether it was ever stolen, and ways to determine if the mileage was tampered with or if it was in a subsequent crash. If the vehicle was declared stolen and never recovered, it could be considered a salvage vehicle in some states and should be branded that way on the title.

But not all vehicle thefts are immediately reported. And because only reported vehicles are listed in the VINCheck vehicle database, it's worth checking with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Registrar of Motor Vehicles (RMV) in the state where the car is registered. Using the VIN, you can request a title or vehicle registration search for a fee in most states.

The returned report lists any accidents reported by insurance companies, including total losses or salvages. The report also lists a vehicle's current owner. This owner information should match the seller of the car, even if it's a dealership.

Check With an Insurance Company

Insurance companies maintain their databases of stolen vehicles. They can also check to ensure the VIN has not been cloned or transferred to a second vehicle by thieves. Each car insurance provider has its specific database and may only perform checks for current customers.

Review the Vehicle's Service Records

Most sellers will share service records for a vehicle, if available. A quick check ensures these records match the VIN on the car. Some service reports also come up on Carfax or AutoCheck reports.

While the service records are more important for determining a car's condition, the report fully describes the vehicle information, including make, model, color, and other features. If the description in the report does not match the vehicle, it may have been subjected to cloning, where a VIN from another car was applied to this one. Not only is it illegal, it could create problems when getting a car loan on a used vehicle.

Some auto dealers provide a copy of a Carfax or AutoCheck report with vehicles they sell. If provided, compare the VIN and description with the car for sale. But any issues here should be an immediate red flag and worth walking away from

Get a Mechanic Involved

As with the service records, an inspection is more about ensuring you are buying a reliable car. However, most mechanics will recognize some red flags that you might not, such as tampering with the VIN decals or odometer, places car thieves like to cover up to defraud unsuspecting buyers. So when dropping the car off for the inspection, ask the mechanic to let you know if they see anything that might indicate the vehicle has been stolen.