Bill Brauch, director of the consumer protection division for the Iowa attorney general's office, says consumers should always be wary when they buy a used car.
"Most reputable car dealers don't want these rebuilt wrecks on their lots," he says. "But a lot of used car dealers are hard up for inventory and they may step over the line because of economic pressures and sell something they should not sell."
Brauch and other consumer experts say before you buy a used car, you should always:
Check the vehicle's history. Companies like Carfax can research a vehicle's title, but experts warn their databases are "seriously deficient in protecting consumers from flooded and rebuilt wrecked cars" because information about those vehicles is often not entered into those systems;
Get the vehicle inspected by an independent body shop, which can check for previous damage;
Get the vehicle inspected by an independent mechanic;
Be wary of companies that sell "certified" used cars. "People need to know these so-called certified cars are such a boondoggle and the name means nothing," says Shahan.
CFA's attorney Rachel Weintraub adds: "Unscrupulous dealers may sell certified used cars ... without representing that the cars have been salvaged. Certified used cars are sold at a premium to consumers because of the more rigorous inspection required. However, sometimes the inspections either knowingly or unknowingly fail to identify a salvaged vehicle.
Consumers are hit extra hard by having paid a premium for what they thought was a more thorough inspection, but then end up with an unsafe car (and one) with a warranty that is void due to prior damage." Some car makers won't honor the warranty on a vehicle that has previous damage;
Find out if the vehicle has been recalled for safety problems. That information is available on The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov;
Check the vehicle's crash test results with the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS). Its Web site is: www.iihs.org. The IIHS is a nonprofit research and communications group funded by auto insurers. You can also find crash test results and rollover ratings on NHTSA's Web site;
Check for signs of previous damage, including mold, paint that doesn't match the rest of the vehicle, frayed safety belts, fenders and doors that don't align, silt in the trunk, and uneven tire tread;
Check the airbag indicator light on the dash board. (It's sometimes marked "SRS" for supplemental restraint system). If the light doesn't come on, it could mean the airbag system isn't working. Car experts say the airbag warning light in most vehicles comes on when you start the car and stays on for a few seconds. If the light stays on longer, there could be a problem with the airbag system.
Inspect the airbag cover to be sure it's original and not a replacement. Most original covers are marked "SRS" or "S/R"; most replacement covers have no marking. Some unscrupulous companies sell replacement airbags covers on the Internet;
Find out if there are complaints about the car dealer. Check with your attorney general's office, local district attorney's office, or other consumer protection agencies and publications, including ConsumerAffairs.com. You can also report companies that knowingly sell rebuilt wrecks to these agencies.
Consumers we interviewed say education is the best way to protect yourself from getting seriously injured -- or losing a loved one -- in a vehicle that doesn't have working airbags.
"My message to other consumers is to get as much information as you can about a vehicle before you buy," says Diane, who lost her teenage son, Torian, in a rollover accident. "Find out how the vehicle did in crash tests. Find out if the airbags work and if they'll protect you in a roll-over accident. Find out if the seat belts work and will hold you if you're in a wreck. All this is especially important if you have kids."
Her husband, Willy, agrees.
"We never want what happened to us to happen to anyone else."