Scam Alert: How to Avoid Buying Cars Damaged by Hurricane Sandy

Cars declared total losses due to hurricane damage could start popping up for sale at used car dealerships and salvage yards, according to Amica insurance.

Selling total loss vehicles to unsuspecting buyers, then making off with the cash before they discover they've been had is certainly not a new form of dishonesty in business.

Insurance experts said consumers shopping for a good deal on a pre-owned vehicle should be especially careful that they aren't unknowingly sold one of the thousands of vehicles deemed total losses or water damaged due to Hurricane Sandy.

“That’s the danger after a storm of this magnitude,” Shannon O’Brien, an Amica Insurance assistant vice president said in a press release. “Salvage operators and dealers may try to conceal the fact that a car has been damaged, leaving potential buyers as potential victims of a bad deal.”

It can take several months to discover a car has water damage, so be suspicious if the vehicle's carpet is wet, National Automobile Dealers Association Chairman Bill Underriner said in a release.

It's also a good idea to check the door panels and the engine panel for signs of submersion such as water, grit, residue and rusting—especially on screws attached to areas that normally wouldn't be exposed to water. 

Take a look at the upholstery, dashboard, trunk and interior carpets for mold and even sniff around for musty, mildew odors coming from the vehicle.

If it's a late model pre-owned vehicle, don't be afraid to get down and check the undercarriage for signs of rust and flaking—those shouldn't be present in a car that's only a few years old, insurance experts say.

It's also important to check the vehicle's electrical wiring for signs of corrosion.

There are also ways for shoppers to do a "background" check on their potential purchase.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau's VINCheck was created seven years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, leaving damaged vehicles in her wake.

The bureau uses information from several insurance companies and the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to compile a list of total loss or damaged vehicles.

Car buyers can enter the Vehicle Identification Number into the database at nicb.org to see if the vehicle has been declared a total loss.

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