Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has issued a consumer alert cautioning consumers against buying used vehicles that may have been flood-damaged by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

As many as 600,000 vehicles throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida may have been affected by the storms and are now being shipped to other states by auto wholesalers.

A flooded car is the personal property of the owner and it is not illegal to sell it, but both the buyer and the seller should be aware that the car has been flooded.

Some sellers may try to scam the buyer by concealing the car's water damage, and the buyer would end up with a car that has serious problems caused by the floodwater.

"Citizens should be extra careful when buying an automobile, especially a used car," said Crist. "By concealing the damage, unethical individuals can pass a car off as a good bargain, when in fact it is nothing more than a water-soaked lemon. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Safety is one of the primary concerns when buying a flood-damaged car. An unsuspecting buyer could be stuck with a car that does not function properly and could place them and their loved ones in serious danger.

Common problems with flood cars include engines, anti-lock brake systems and airbag systems that may malfunction, ruined electrical components and mold and mildew throughout the air conditioner and heating systems.

Several services are available for consumers and auto dealers to check Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) to help determine if a particular vehicle has a flood-damage record.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau has compiled a database of vehicles affected by the hurricanes, which can be searched by the public free of charge. The database is available at www.nicb.org.

In addition, Carfax is helping protect unsuspecting buyers by making all of its flood information available to consumers and dealers free of charge at www.carfax.com/flood.

Crist said consumers and dealers should be wary of someone trying to sell a car for well below the retail value. One obvious sign is a moldy smell from the seats and carpeting, although determined rip-off artists can conceal this through new carpeting and interior components. Sand, silt and salt under the carpeting is another indication that the car may be a flood car.

Buyers should also check the engine compartment, trunk, and inner doors for silt and be aware of any electrical problems that recur or change on a daily basis.