A new national database of vehicle identification numbers (commonly known as VINs) should go some way toward eliminating conmen, swindlers and ne'er-do-wells from selling cars without disclosing pertinent information to buyers. Where before buyers could be fooled by falsified salvage history or mileage readouts, the new database gathers all of that in one place under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice.
This database goes by the name of the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) and can be found at http://www.vehiclehistory.gov. Created as part of the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, it mandated the creation of a federally controlled repository of VIN numbers to prevent car theft and fraud across state lines.
It wasn't meant to take 18 years to fully get off the ground, but you know how things go at the highest levels of democracy. In fact, not only did it take 18 years, it took lawsuits brought by the non-profit groups Public Citizen of Washington, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety of Sacramento, and Consumer Action of San Francisco against the Department of Justice, which was the department charged with creation of the database.
But here we are, the database is up and running and you can access it. Now whenever you want to buy a used car you can request a report from the NMVTIS and possibly save yourself money and time and frustration with a fuller picture of title information concerning that car.
For instance, take the thunderstorms going on in the Northeast right now: if someone's car title was branded "flood" because of some Act-of-God incident, naturally the value of that car takes a huge hit. When the owner decides to sell it, if he wants to get some of that money back he could take the car to another state, get it retitled without the flood designation - that's called "title washing" -- perhaps rolling back the odometer while he's at it, and voila, a robust resale value lives again and some innocent sucker is left to pick up the pieces.
The NMVTIS puts the kibosh on all that. Estimates are that it will reduce fraudulent insurance payoffs by more than $200 million per year (we hope insurance companies will pass on that savings ...), prevent 60,000 branded titles from being washed every single year, and add up to $11 billion in yearly savings in fraud avoidance when the system is running as proposed.
States, insurers, salvage yards and junk yards are required to submit this information to the NMVTIS: a vehicle's VIN and complete description, the name of the title-holder and lien-holder, the state the vehicle is currently titled in, the date of the title, the last odometer reading, any theft history, any "brand" such as 'flood' or or 'junk' or 'total loss' applied to a vehicle, and a salvage or junk history if applicable.
In truth, it's not only for cars - buses, some trucks, motorcycles, RVs and motor homes, and tractors are reported, too. Depending on how a state keeps track of commercial vehicles, they might also be in the database. At the moment there are in excess of 7,500 agencies and companies submitting info.
The result is that a VIN is tied to a car, and any incidents applied to that VIN live in one place that consumers, states, insurers, and law enforcement agencies can access. If a car has been junked and the junk yard has done its job, the VIN has been reported as such, so it can't be applied to another car to receive a clean title.
For crime-solving agencies the database is meant to be an additional aid, either by being a better tool to trace a car's history and ownership or busting organized scams like theft rings.
At the moment, all 50 states are required to be fully compliant with the database's requirements - contributing the mandated information at least once every 24 hours and performing title verification checks before issuing new titles. However, participation varies among 45 states, and four states and the District of Columbia have not yet complied at all.
Still, according to the database there are more than 300 million VIN numbers on file, comprising "78 percent of the US DMV data."
Used Car Shopping?
The database will not catch the kinds of smaller incidents you might find on a CARFAX, though. Instead, the NMVTIS it is meant to complement a CARFAX. That is, if it isn't the kind of info that would be on a title, like an assessment assigned by an insurance company, you won't find it in the NMVTIS. On the other hand - and this is where we can see some people falling through the cracks - an insurance carrier might report a VIN number to the NMVTIS as a total loss, but the car might not go through a process that induces the state's titling agency to brand it "salvage" or "junk." In that case, when you try to get it titled in the same state or another, the state agency will pull up different information than that in the NMVTIS, and then, to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo, there'll be a lotta 'splainin' to do.
If you want to get a VIN report on a car you can use the sites set up by the two third-party providers, Auto Data Direct and CARCO Group, to request one. It costs between $2 and $4 to receive, and reports will include anonymous title information but no personal information. Anything that can identify the owner will only be available to law enforcement, state motor vehicle and government agencies.
We'll find out how well it really works when everyone is added to the system and we need to get a car titled.