Checking a Carfax report has become such an ingrained part of the car-buying experience that many consumers assume that it's a definitive document that captures the complete history of a car. It's not.

Carfax is only as accurate as the information reported by its 76,000 sources. Which means that if an accident has yet to be reported to one of its sources, or if it never gets reported at all, it's not going to show up on the report.

It's easy to see how consumers could be confused.

The Carfax brand has become so accepted as an industry standard that some used-car sellers often provide a Carfax report as validation a car has not sustained prior damage. Yet in smaller print on its website and on its report, Carfax acknowledges its records may not contain an entire history on a car. On the same website, it advertises, "Get a detailed vehicle history report from our nationwide database within seconds."

Can consumers decipher the nuanced difference between a detailed report and a complete one?

Last week, ABC News profiled Oklahoma resident Danny Chaney, 54, whose 2012 Chevrolet Colorado broke down shortly after he drove it off a used dealer lot. An inspection revealed the car had sustained damage in a prior accident, one that never showed up on Chaney's Carfax report.

"I won't trust Carfax," Chaney tells the network. "And I will tell everyone I know, 'Don't trust Carfax.'"

Take a test drive

Carfax spokesperson Larry Gamache says Chaney should have taken the car to a mechanic before he bought it, not afterward, and more broadly, Carfax should be seen as one tool in the consumer's fact-finding arsenal, not the only one.

"Buyers of used cars have to take the necessary steps to reduce their chances of buying cars with hidden problems," he said. "It's beholden upon all of us to ask for a Carfax, take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic and take it on a test drive."

Carfax's catalog contains about 12 billion records culled from sources like police departments, motor vehicle departments and auctions, Gamache said. About 3.5 million records are added every day by a data-gathering team based at the company's Centreville, Va. headquarters.

(Note: Carfax is a partner of AOL Autos, providing vehicle history information on our car listings).

Car-history records companies like Carfax and its competitors, like AutoCheck and VINaudit operate much like consumer credit-reporting agencies, such as Experian and TransUnion, in that arrive at slightly different conclusions because they use different data sources. Each one offers a slightly different snapshot, but not a complete picture.

Salespeople may exacerbate confusion

As part of its reporting, ABC News visited Maxon, a Mazda and Hyundai dealership along Route 22 in Union, N.J., where two salespeople tried to sell undercover investigators an accident-riddled CX-7 that had clean Carfax reports.

"Yeah, the Carfax basically will tell you if the car's been in an accident," the sales manager said. "On our lot, we don't keep anything that's been in accidents."

Confronted by a reporter who revealed the car had been in a serious accident, a salesperson at Maxon blamed Carfax. "If I print out a Carfax, and that arrows are green, that means it's 100 percent," he said.

Why did the Carfax not show the accident? "You've got to take that up with the Fox himself," the salesperson said, referring to the "Car Fox", the company's advertising mascot.

A phone call from AOL Autos to the Maxon dealership went unreturned. From the video, it's unclear whether the salesperson intentionally misled the undercover reporter on the Carfax parameters or whether he really believed it was an accurate vehicle history.

Dealerships need to do a better job setting standards and educating salespeople to make sure they don't misrepresent the Carfax report in dealings with customers – but it can often be just as vexing for dealership employees.

"I have seen reports that dealers use when shopping online for used vehicles that show a clean vehicle history report at the time of purchase, but only to find out a week or two later – when the report is re-run by the dealer – it includes an updated vehicle history, such as damage from some type of accident," said Stu Zalud, director of dealer services for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Bottom line: "Everyone believes vehicle history reports are the Holy Grail," Zalud said. "This is not the case."

So, what should car buyers do?

Shopping for a used car? Here are a couple tips on how you can minimize the chances of coming home with a lemon that has hidden damage.

- Follow the advice of Carfax itself. It's report is one tool in your decision-making process, not the only one.

- Do buy a Carfax report, or read over the free report provided by the seller. Either ask the seller to also provide a second report from a competitor such as Autocheck and VINaudit, or buy one yourself. You increase your chances of catching a problem with multiple reports.

- Take the car for a test drive. It's hard to believe anyone would buy a car without taking a jaunt down the road, but you're more likely to discover problems driving yourself.

- Always -- always, got it? -- have the car inspected by a mechanic of your choosing. Whether you are buying the car private party or from a reputable used-car dealership, this should be mandatory.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at and followed @PeterCBigelow.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      It also works in reverse I alow milage luxry car that is garagee keep. I had my bumper damaged on my car and hood when some one back up into it. It had repairable dings in it but instead of having it patched I got a new bumber and hood finish to factory specs which wasnt cheap. That was a big mistake on my part now my car has Car- Fax as being damaged and having extensive repairs because I order & used factorty made replacment parts. If I fixed it onthe cheap no Car Fax
      • 1 Year Ago
      Their is no silver bullet.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Any car I look at to buy? -Goes to my Local Body Shop for inspection -Goes to Local Dealer for a $50 Inspection -The Seller is Informed, if they don't tell me everything about it? I will Sue them! and have them charged with Fraud and spend a Min. of 90 days in Jail.. I've Sued 3 and won and Had 3 Went to Jail.. Including 1 Used Car Salesman.. Did Similar when I buy a Home as well.. Got 9 Real Estate Agents Licenses on my Belt and 2 Winning Law suits from 2 Major Agencies and 2 former Homeowners who Got 33% Less for their Homes.. 3 mos after I bought them and Knew they had problems they didn't disclose and Lied about.. I Love how they UnderEstimate me..! Play Columbo role with them and Play Naive' and Dumb..
      • 1 Year Ago
      CARFAX is a SCAM !!! Key word its only what is reported ! I bought a car with a clean record and found out it was wrecked and fixed by a cash payment and never reported
        • 1 Year Ago
        i would not call it a scam it the same like any other of its type it will contain any all info that was report it has not control over what is not report and there not ripping yu off it cannot give you info it never got as is the case with anything else it reports what it know base on the info it gets it not a scam
      • 1 Year Ago
      I live in NJ and had a car accident resulting in 11K in damages. About a year later, wanted to trade in the car for the next model up and was honest when I told the dealership that it had been in an accident, and the told them the exact amount my insurance paid. The salesman responded "are you sure it was this car?" Um, well since I only have one car, I was 100% sure that this was this was indeed the car, but then he explained that it had a clean CarFax, and he didn't know why. My repairs were paid by my insurance company (GEICO) about a year earlier and had done nothing to prevent this from public record. Had I kept silent about the accident, I would have made much more money off the trade-in, but took the high road accepted their offer. In my case, I was a seller, but my advice would be to use caution when relying on a CarFax report when purchasing, you simply cannot be sure the report is accurate.
      • 1 Year Ago
      If you have an accident and dont report it to your insurance company and have it fixed yourself Carfax will NOT show that
      • 1 Year Ago
      Carfax is a joke, my sons pickeup got a clean bill of health, the dealer had all the paper work that they had put in a new transmission at one point.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Kind of reminds me of my Niece, She bought a car off a small used car lot. It was suppose to have 65,000 miles on it. A Pontiac Grand Am. When it reached 70,000 miles the check engine light came on, I used my code reader and it said the ABS brakes have a fault, I could not find anything wrong, A month later it did it again, So I told her to take it to Pep Boys, WOW the problem was BOTH front wheel bearings were wore out, She had them replaced and all is OK, Problem GM front wheel bearings last about 150 to 200,000 miles, Tells me the lot changed the Oddometer but try and prove it.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Carfax is meaningless if work is done at a private shop with aftermarket parts.
      Ralph Crawford
      • 1 Year Ago
      I am a car dealer who has numerous issues with Carfax. I congratulate them on creating a need and filling it, but they need to issue caveats in bold type. The medicine ads say the medicine may cause diarrhea and constipation at the same time- they need to say, not in the very fine print now used, they only give whatever info they get correctly as they get it. If they don't get it, then it's not accurate. In my very involved experience they are wrong 45 to 50 percent of the time. I had a car that they said was clean, turned out to be shown on the National Crime Information Computer as stolen. Their answer? They don't use that and it was stolen in Michigan which was not of of the SEVEN states they get stolen car reports from. I buy from on-line live auctions and research and Carfax every car I look at. Every workday I see 4 to 5 cars being sold as having frame damage and major problems that Carfax reports as clean. They other day they showed a Mini as clean and worth $600 more than average ( more on that later) while it was being offered at $10000 under value since it had been stolen and stripped, not reorted to insurance.. Their reports do not and in fact cannot report real time condition. If an insurance company or shop that does not report to them is involved- or if the car has a fire in the drive while your working on it, or if someone hits it and says I'll pay to not involve police or if you drive into a flooded underpass and tow it home and let it dry- any number of situations - they cannot know the facts. If a person just does not maintain or if they abuse the vehicle they cannot know. I want them to state boldly that there is no substitute for a hands-on, preferably professonal, pre-purchase inspection of the car. Carfax last fall cost me money above the $883/month subscription cost I pay, which they are raising in April I am told. I had to lower the price on a Toyota Yaris which was in fact very clean in fact and history and had a accurately clean Carfax when I bought it. A month later they changed the report to state it was originally a police car in Mississippi. A Yaris? It further stated the registration cahged a year later when the owner moved to a different city. Police departments move to different cities? I sent them copies of all title and one lady owner documentation. They said their records showed police ownership and it was my problem and I had to contact Mississippi and get it corrected even though Carfax was contradicting itself. Where do you start to get it fixed? The new buyer saw the documents and used Carfax to get a bigger discount. I Purchased a Jeep that had a correct and clean history according to them. Three months later Carfax suddenly showed it in an accident in Tennessee at a time when it was parked nexrt to our showroom. WE contacted them and offered affadavits and inspections. Their answer again? My problem to get correct in Tenn. Carfax? Cocky and greedy. GET AN INSPECTION BEFOREHAND. We welcome it.
      • 1 Year Ago
      One related example... I traded in a station wagon on a brand new small pick-up truck at a new car dealership, and thumbed my nose at it as my wife and drove past it when we left the dealership in the truck. She seemed surprised, as she asked me if I really didn't like that car that much! I replied that the most valuable part of that car was the six months remaining on the license plates. (New pickup came with new plates.) About 4 months later, I started getting notices of parking tickets from a larger, nearby town that threatened to impound the car if the ticket(s) were not paid. The fourth notice was that the car was impounded and would be sold at auction to pay the tickets. (This is in Texas by the way.) I had the paperwork from the dealer that showed all the ID numbers on my traded-in vehicle, so I wasn't worried, AND, I had absolutely no idea who "owned" that car. The underlying 'problem' is that I did not take the license plates off the car, and the dealer must have wholesaled it out, and then it was resold, but not re-registered, and didn't have the title officially transferred. No doubt those two (or more) transactions would not be on CarFax, and maybe not on any other service. FYI: Why did I mention Texas? The laws in Texas make it THE SELLER"S responsibility to transfer the title, not the buyer, and that is not the case in MOST states. In the state of Texas, SELLER beware, (especially if you sell as an individual)! If your 'sold vehicle' is involved in anything "bad", YOU are still the owner! (Unless you and the buyer went to the DMV and transferred the title!) Oh, and I bought a 4-door sedan from a new/used dealership that apparently had turned right and brushed against a wooden post, damaging two doors, and that was NOT on the CarFax the dealer pulled. The salesman was visibly surprised when he read it, since it showed the car had one owner, and no collisions!
      • 1 Year Ago
      Carfax is a good report,they are 99% accurate.If you read the bottom of the page on the report,Carfax it is not a 100% report,no one is.They advise you to check it out by your mechanic and more than one source.It is surley better to have a Carfax report on a used car than to have nothing at all.I guess your only other option is to ask the guy whos selling it to you.LMAO
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