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What is a VIN number?
Vehicle Identification Number stands for "VIN". This vin number is a universal serial number provided to every car by the vehicle manufacturer. Within the 17-digit number are different codes that indicate the car's make and model, a serial number, where the vehicle was manufactured, and even information about optional add-ons such as a sun roof.

VIN Check Warnings

When buying a previously owned car, there are many ways for you to get a bad deal from both a dealer and a private seller.

Odometers may be rolled back thousands of miles. It is against the law in most states, but it is easy to do. It is still a major problem in used cars today.

Be wary if the previous owner will not or cannot show you the past repair records or identity of any former owners. If the title seems suspicious, go somewhere else.

If an auto is shipped from out-of-state or received in trade from another dealer.

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A Used Car Extended Warranty offers. An extended car warranty from a auto warranty company can be a lifesaver when your vehicle breaks down unexpectantly. A car warranty is much like insurance for auto repairs. It's a well known fact that used cars do not come with warranties - and many of them break down the first month of ownership!


Check A Car

Date: Apr 19, 2005
Contributor: Clayton Rosenbeck

State Farm settlement delayed needlessly, experts say

Consumer and safety groups say that State Farm has set up a needlessly complicated and time-consuming process to make good on a $40 million settlement for thousands of motorists who still don't know they bought used cars and trucks that had been wrecked.

The process is taking months to implement and the motorists have yet to be notified. That means thousands of them are continuing to drive vehicles that may have hidden and potentially dangerous damage, the consumer advocates say.

The criticism is aimed at a settlement State Farm reached in January with 49 state attorneys general. The company admitted that at least 30,000 motorists unknowingly purchased wrecked vehicles. State Farm, the nation's largest auto insurer, admitted it resold the damaged vehicles without purchasing salvage titles as required by state laws.

State Farm described the sales as mistakes, which it couldn't explain and only learned of years later. A company spokesman said the criticism from the consumer groups shouldn't "be accepted as fact." He said the company was moving as quickly as it could to inform consumers while being careful to provide accurate information.

Critics of the deal include representatives of five advocacy groups: Consumers Union; the National Consumer Law Center in Boston; Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in Sacramento, Calif.; the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington; and the National Association of Consumer Advocates in Washington.

They say the attorneys general failed to get a good deal for motorists, ended up with a sweetheart deal for State Farm and left some motorists in possible danger.

"Potentially, you have ticking time bombs out there," Sally Greenburg, a senior product safety attorney with Consumers Union in Washington, says of the cars still on the road.

State Farm says it needs until September to identify, find and notify motorists who bought the wrecked vehicles; consumer groups say that information is readily available now, without any wait.

The groups accuse State Farm of foot-dragging to avoid bad publicity and to prevent lawyers from learning the names of victims and filing big suits. Consumer groups point out that any insurance company can purchase the names of vehicle owners from ChoicePoint, a data collection company with billions of records.

A ChoicePoint spokeswoman says the company had no comment because the State Farm situation was "too sensitive."

But on its Web site, ChoicePoint advertises that customers "can instantly verify a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and identify the vehicle current owner."

Those customers include State Farm.

"The database is available, and they should log onto it. It's obvious that it's there today," Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says of the names.

The attorneys general should require that State Farm immediately post the VINs on a Web site accessible to all motorists, says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

He maintains that State Farm hasn't done that "because they don't want to let consumers know that they may be in possession of rebuilt wrecks. Because they understand what will happen when consumers find out - they are going to be furious, and the company will be open to all sorts of liability."

How to check a car:

For now, here's what motorists must do to make sure they aren't driving one of the vehicles, which were repaired but could still be unsound because of hidden structural damage:

Go to State Farm's Web site and find a link (it's listed under "Interviews and articles" in the "newsroom" section) called "State Farm efforts to resolve salvage vehicle titling issues." The seventh paragraph of that article offers a link to a news release on the Web site of the state attorney general in Des Moines, Iowa.

At the bottom of that site are instructions on how to contact - by mail only - a title company in Faribault, Minn. You are instructed to include your name, address, make and model of car and find the 17-digit motor vehicle number on your title. The title company will write back - by mail - and confirm whether you are driving one of the wrecked vehicles.

If so, you may eventually be eligible for a share in the $40 million that State Farm has volunteered to pay owners of the wrecked cars and trucks. Nearly every state attorney general in the country has praised that settlement.

"People can take potshots at us all they want, but we are very pleased at what we were able to do for consumers," said William L. Brauch. He heads the consumer protection division in the Iowa attorney general's office. State Farm says it sought him out for a settlement; that led to him becoming lead negotiator in the case for all 49 participating states. Every state but Indiana is participating, along with the District of Columbia.

The settlement calls for State Farm to use ChoicePoint to identify the motorists. So why the delay? Brauch says each state must work through its motor vehicle department to match State Farm's vehicle identification numbers with current owners. That is a laborious process, he says, adding he's surprised that State Farm has promised to finish as early as September.

As for ChoicePoint, Brauch said the data company's information is not as accurate as vehicle information the states keep. He said the states plan to use ChoicePoint "as a final check. But that is not the only way to locate these vehicles."

Although the settlement was signed on Jan. 10, Brauch said Iowa hadn't started processing State Farm's VINs.

So why not try ChoicePoint? "It wouldn't make sense to try it," Brauch said, calling ChoicePoint's data "a hodgepodge of accurate and inaccurate information."

A State Farm spokesman, Phil Supple, said the company was working with state motor vehicle departments but has not finished identifying the motorists "and therefore, notice is not possible."

Those explanations drew fire from the chief critic, Bernard Brown, a lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., specializing in car fraud and rebuilt wreck cases. He is a board member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a group of 1,000 attorneys who represent consumers in fraud cases and who advocate stronger consumer laws.

Brown has no client and no monetary interest in the State Farm settlement. He got involved because he views the settlement as weak and dangerous for consumers. He has written letters to Brauch and others pointing out how they could easily use ChoicePoint to get the names of vehicle owners and notify them quickly.

Brown regularly uses ChoicePoint in his work. "I take a VIN number and it immediately shows the name and address" of the vehicle owner, he said.

State Farm insured the wrecked vehicles and has the VINs. Brown wants the states to run those numbers through ChoicePoint and send warning notices to everyone listed as having owned one of State Farm's wrecks.

If ChoicePoint's data also include the names of some people who already sold or junked those cars, so what? Brown asks.

"You broke the law," he says, referring to State Farm's failure to get the salvage titles required for wrecked vehicles. "There is no problem in sending notices to someone who might not need it anymore."

Brown notes the current process excludes e-mail, phone calls and faxes - everything but a letter. He wants the VINs posted online.

Brauch says requiring that consumers make inquiries by mail is necessary to prevent "somebody from leaving a garbled VIN or something" on an e-mail.

He said he was less concerned about alerting people immediately; he doubts claims that some of the vehicles still being driven may have hidden structural damage.

"I think that's overblown," Brauch said. "There's always some potential safety problems. But remember that these cars have been out on the road a long time." (State Farm says it began mislabeling salvage vehicles in 1997.) "So the notion that there is a ticking time bomb, I don't agree with that."

Mierzwinski responds that while the worst of the wrecked vehicles might already be in junkyards from accidents, that's no reason not to hurry now.

"State Farm needs to tell everyone who ever purchased one of these cars," Mierzwinski says. "Safety doesn't matter only to people who are still driving one of these cars. It matters to everybody."

State Farm says it doesn't plan to notify everyone who ever owned one of the wrecks - only those who still own them. Only those motorists are eligible for the settlement. State Farm says most motorists will get $400 to $10,000 apiece.

All others, including motorists who junked or sold vehicles because they were breaking down, are excluded from the settlement approved by the attorneys general.

Brauch said, "People are going to get a very good settlement and they're going to get it more quickly than if we had not taken action."

John Sheldon, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says the amounts offered to motorists "is laughable." Similar cases, he says, that went to trial produced damages of about $50,000 per victim.

Sheldon says State Farm was faced with potentially huge punitive damages, until the attorneys general agreed to the settlement. State Farm hired a former New York attorney general, Robert Abrams, to negotiate with Iowa and other attorneys general. In March, he wrote a letter defending the settlement, saying the VINs shouldn't be put online because of "privacy concerns" and other reasons.

Motorists who sign the State Farm settlement give up their right to sue. They also won't know when they sign how much money they will get. The more who sign up, the less each motorist will get.

"In my mind," Sheldon says, "the settlement notice is deceptive because it doesn't warn people they could be getting a lot less than they think."

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