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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Next time you buy a used car, don't get squeezed by a Tropical Storm Fay lemon

When Tropical Storm Fay blew through town in August, some of the more striking images were of cars and trucks half-submerged in murky floodwaters.

Dozens of local vehicles were among the 100,000 cars damaged nationwide by Fay, said Chris Basso, spokesman for Carfax, provider of vehicle histories.

Such vehicles suffer from electrical problems and malfunctioning antilock brakes and airbags. Still, more than half will be resold to unwitting consumers, often after being refurbished and moved across state lines, Basso said.

"They're called gray-market cars," said Paul Mattfield, owner of Indian River Insurance Agency in Fellsmere. "They've been in accidents, but they don't look like they've been in accidents."

In most states, including Florida, a salvage title is reissued on the car to indicate flood damage. But variations in state title law and lack of communication between state agencies creates loopholes.

Title history can be erased by title-washing, when an individual moves the car to a state that doesn't recognize the title. When that state reissues the auto title, the damage often goes unrecorded. Another common technique is VIN cloning, when an individual swaps the car's vehicle information number with that of an undamaged car in another state.

State lemon laws do not cover used cars, and buyers have little recourse if they discover flood damage after the fact.

"If you purchase a car 'as is,' then you're kind of out of luck," said Stuart-based attorney Lee Feinberg. "There's nothing you can do about it unless you can show (the dealer) knew something was wrong with the vehicle — it's tough to prove."

Experienced car dealers say, however, it's almost impossible to erase all signs of the original VIN number, but you must know where to look.

"The VIN number — that's your thumbprint," said John Morello, general manager for City Cars in Fort Pierce. "It's on the fender; it's on the motor."

In September, a federal judge in California imposed a six-month deadline on the government to enforce a law Congress passed in 1992. Under the ruling, insurance companies, salvage yards and junkyards will be required to report totaled vehicles to a national database.

For now, experts recommend having a mechanic check the car for rust, discoloration and other signs of water damage.

"You can't cover it up," said Hoyt Roberts, president of Stuart-based used car dealer Good Rides Inc. "You can put all the perfume stuff you want; it's still going to have a musty smell."

Source: DEEPA SEETHARAMAN, TC Palm.com

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