How To Find Out if a Car is Stolen
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How To Find Out if a Car is Stolen

By Autolist Editorial | March 11, 2020

Buying a used car comes with a whole set of challenges. From financing to negotiating the price to making sure you're not buying a lemon, there is a lot to do. One of the easiest things to check of your pre-purchase to-do list is making sure it's not stolen. This article discusses how to check a car's vehicle history to help you avoid buying a stolen vehicle.

The Vehicle Identification Number

The key to uncovering a vehicle's history is the vehicle identification number, or VIN. Any seller should be willing to allow you to check the VIN on the vehicle itself. The number should match the one the seller provides. If it does not, it could be a sign the seller is dishonest.

The VIN is a 17 character code that car manufacturers are required to put several places in a vehicle. The easiest to locate is generally on the lower left side of the windshield and the side of the driver's door. The code on the dashboard is behind the steering wheel, on the far left forward portion. The VIN also appears in the rear wheel wells, the engine block, beneath the spare tire and the frame under the hood. These numbers should all be identical, and the labels should show no signs of tampering.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau

Once you have the car's VIN, you can quickly check whether the vehicle is stolen using the VINCheck tool provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, or NICB. Go to the NICB website and enter the VIN on the VINCheck page. Once you accept the terms and conditions for the free VIN check and submit the form, the website will inform you whether the VIN is 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. The NICB advises not to confront the seller if a VIN comes back associated with auto theft.

Check the Motor Vehicle History Report

Not all vehicle thefts are reported immediately. As only reported vehicles appear in the VINCheck vehicle database, you may also want to check a vehicle's history with the state's motor vehicle agency. In most states, you can request a title search for a fee.

Title searches are performed using the VIN. The returned report lists any accidents, including total losses or salvages, reported by insurance companies. The report also contains some information about the vehicle's current owner, and this information should match the seller of the car, even if it is a dealership.

Check With Your Car 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 insurance company has its database and may only perform checks for current customers.

Review the Service Records

Most sellers will share service records for a vehicle, if available. A quick check is to ensure these records match the VIN on the car. If they do not, it is a potential red flag. You can also run a complete service report with Carfax or Autocheck. Both companies charge a fee and require the VIN to prepare a report. While the service records are more important for determining a car's condition, the report has a full description of the vehicle information, including make, model, color and other features. If the description in the report does not match the vehicle you are considering buying, and it may a cloned VIN.

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.

Have the Car Inspected by a Mechanic

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. 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.

Warning Signs That a Car May Be Stolen

Even before you run a VIN 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 to verify the VIN on the car. Another potential red flag is a private seller wishing to sell the vehicle 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.

It is also essential that you demand a bill of sale for your purchase. In addition to the VIN and vehicle description, that statement should include the name and address of the buyer and seller and the purchase price. Both parties should also sign it. Request the driver's license or other state-issued ID of the seller 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 the purchase of a stolen vehicle.

The Most Stolen Vehicles

Checking to see if a used car is stolen is always a good idea. That is especially important if you are looking to buy a model of car that is frequently stolen. Hundreds of thousands of vehicles are subject to theft each year in the United States. Among those most at risk are the Honda Accord and Honda Civic. Before shopping for a used vehicle, check the NICB's list of most stolen cars, and be extra vigilant with those models.


Before buying a used vehicle, it is good practice to make sure the car has not been stolen. The key to checking for vehicle theft is the VIN. Verify the number on the vehicle itself rather than just using the number provided by the seller. Use the VINCheck database to see if the car is stolen. You can also have your insurance company check their database and run a title search with your state DMV.