How to Check If a Car Is Stolen: 7 Steps to Avoid Buying a Stolen Car

Article Summary:

You’re excited to buy a used car, but wait! Take precautions to ensure your potential future car is legitimate and not stolen. Doing a thorough inspection, requesting a professional opinion, and verifying the seller’s and vehicle’s history are all critical steps you should take before buying a car. Read below for specific steps as to how to make sure your future car is not stolen.

You’ve been saving your money; you’ve identified your favorite makes and models; you’ve started to look into potential options; and you’ve prepared all your documents. After looking at the unbelievably high new car prices, you start to consider buying a used car instead.

Buying a used car is a great way to pay less upfront and save on long-term insurance costs. The extra money you save can go toward other investments or financial goals, and you can have some peace of mind that the car you are driving is not depreciating rapidly in value.

However, buying a used car means going through private sellers on sites such as Kelley Blue Book, CarMax, or even Craigslist. While these sites have many legitimate options, they also run the risk of scams, including stolen cars. You may be wondering how to prepare to buy from a private seller or how to check if vehicles offered by private sellers are stolen.

Go through these steps to protect yourself and your future purchase from unwanted legal trouble.

1. Check the Vehicle Identification Number

The VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, uniquely identifies vehicles. This long string of numbers may be found in various places depending on the type of car, but most commonly on the dashboard, windshield base, or inside the front driver’s-side door.

You may be able to verify the VIN through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Policies may vary by state, however. For instance, the Nevada DMV states categorically that “The DMV does not release records to prospective vehicle purchasers.” You can also verify the VIN, and learn something of the vehicle’s history, by using the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB)’s VINCheck® Lookup tool. With this tool, you can find insurance information as to whether the vehicle has been identified as stolen or salvaged. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s VIN Decoder can tell you if a VIN is valid and, if it is, what it reveals about the car.

Thieves may try to tamper with the car’s VIN or switch it with the VIN from a different vehicle. Also known as car cloning, one car’s VIN plate, registration sticker, and license plate are put on another. Pay attention to VIN numbers that appear scratched or damaged, as this is a sign that the vehicle has altered vehicle identification numbers. You should also confirm that the VIN numbers match up at all locations on the car.

2. Confirm the vehicle’s history with online companies

Although the Internet can be full of scams, it also has helpful resources for checking a vehicle history report and doing a title search.

Companies such as CARFAX allow consumers to purchase vehicle history reports at a relatively low price. You will find the service history, car title history, accidents, and ownership or liens in these reports.

The gaps or inconsistencies in the history versus what the seller tells you may point to a stolen vehicle. Additionally, if there is no history on the car in the most recent months or years, it is a sign that the car is stolen or, at the very least, not cared for.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is another online resource to confirm the car’s title. The title should list the vehicle’s current owner, so if the title ownership doesn’t match the seller’s name, you might suspect that the car is stolen.

3. Get the car checked out by a professional

When purchasing a new car, it is always a good idea to get it looked at by a reputable mechanic to ensure it is safe and in good condition. Mechanics will be able to examine the state of the car and let you know if any parts have been replaced or tampered with. If this does not align with what the seller tells you, it might be a clue that the car has an untold history.

Another option is to ask your insurance company if they would inspect the car for safety or potential criminal activity. Some insurance companies require an inspection of the vehicle if you plan to switch insurance carriers or purchase a new type of coverage, such as collision or comprehensive coverage.

Pro tip

Most dealerships and private sellers will let you take the car to a mechanic before committing to the buy. If a seller says you cannot take the car to a mechanic, you should take that as a red flag and not purchase the car!

4. Establish the seller’s identity

Your first clue that you are working with a stolen car might come not from the condition of the car itself but the attitude of the seller. Ask the seller for proof of identification and make sure the identifiable information matches the seller’s claims.

Additionally, see if the seller can provide the car’s service records or proof of purchase. If the seller provides maintenance receipts, check the car’s information on the receipts. If such receipt entries as the VIN, make and model, and license plate number match those of the car, it means that the car has been well taken care of.

Sellers should also be willing to provide proof of purchase and the price at which they purchased their cars. If a car’s information is consistent and legitimate, this signals that the car is unlikely to be stolen.

5. Do a thorough inspection of the vehicle

The above are essential steps for confirming the car’s identity and history. However, sometimes the easiest step provides the most information: doing an inspection yourself.

After confirming that the VIN plate is consistent across all places on the car, you should look to other signs. Are the license plates real? Compare the license plate material and stiffness to that of your current vehicle, and verify that the number matches all the service records.

You should also examine all parts of the car that are easily replaceable, and if something looks off, ask the seller why things were replaced and if there is a record of it in the car’s history. We recommend looking at the steering wheel, front wheels, rear wheels, registration stickers, and car frame.

6. Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask endless questions. Ankit Dhadwal, founder of car insurance startup Mount Shine and an automobile expert, says that question-asking is the most substantial way not to get fooled into buying a stolen car:

7. Go with your intuition

If you’re reading this article, it might be because you have a feeling in your gut that something is off with your car. Sometimes your gut is the best clue that the seller is not the car’s rightful owner or there is fraudulent activity.

Other things that might be signs that the vehicle is stolen include if the seller requests to be paid in cash and won’t take a debit or credit card, if the price is too good to be true, or if the seller does not encourage important steps in the car buying process.

It is worth investigating if the car record does not match what the seller is telling you or what you find from other sources. Not every car will have a perfect record, but discrepancies that cannot be explained are red flags.

What should you do if you accidentally purchase a stolen vehicle?

If you find out the car is stolen during the process of purchasing the vehicle, or even worse, after buying the vehicle, the best thing to do is contact the police. Dhadwal comments:

Pro tip

You want to stop driving the car immediately once you find out it is stolen to avoid having it impounded and being held responsible for the associated fees and hassle!


Can cars be tracked if stolen?

If a car has GPS, it can be tracked. It is best to contact the GPS company for their assistance in tracking your vehicle and potentially shutting it down.

How do I find out if a car is stolen in the U.K.?

In the U.K., you can use the police national database and logbook to confirm the car’s history and corroborate the seller’s information. Learn more.

How do I find out if a car is stolen in Canada?

In Canada, you can visit the Canadian Police Information Center website and check for stolen vehicles using the VIN. Check now.

How can I check if a car is stolen in India?

In India, the National Crime Records Bureau has a national database to confirm the vehicle’s history with its VIN. Begin here.

Do all cars have trackers?

Many cars have GPS navigation systems that allow real-time tracking of a car to identify its location while driving. Not all cars will have GPS, but it is increasingly common.

Do car thieves check for GPS?

A car thief may look for GPS, but given the nature of the crime, they might not have time to check before driving away.

Key takeaways

  • Be thorough in your inspection of the car. Look at the VIN number and license plates and make sure they have not been tampered with.
  • A stolen vehicle might have inconsistencies in its vehicle history and service record. Gather as much information about the car as possible!
  • If you encounter a stolen car, walk away from the sale and inform the police as soon as possible. Hand over as much information as you can.
View Article Sources
  1. Background articles from auto loan, cars and automobiles, car buying, and car financing sites — Various
  2. CARFAX Vehicle History Reports — CARFAX
  3. Check a Used Vehicle You’re Buying — U.K. Government
  4. Generate Vehicle NOC — National Crime Records Bureau (India)
  5. Public Records Access — Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles
  6. Research Vehicle History — National Motor Vehicle Title Information System
  7. Search Vehicles — Canadian Police Information Center
  8. VIN Decoder — National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  9. VINCheck® Lookup — National Insurance Crime Bureau
  10. Can You Buy a Car With a Debit Card? — SuperMoney
  11. Can You Buy a Car Without a License? — SuperMoney
  12. How To Buy a Used Car From a Private Seller: 5-Point Checklist — SuperMoney
  13. How To Get Impound Fees Waived and Get Your Car Out for Free — SuperMoney
  14. What Is a Car Title? Things You Need To Know — SuperMoney
  15. What To Bring When Buying a Car — SuperMoney