HomeĀ  Values Resources How to Use Exotics Older Subscribe vmr-latemodel-logo MENU

Buyer Beware! Title Fraud is Everywhere

There it is, your dream car. Yes, it is a couple of years old, but it has low miles, it just the right color, and it is still under the factory warranty. An agreeable price is reached, and then comes the paperwork. You're no dummy! Before handing over the money you check the official DMV issued title. Depending on what state you live in this important document may come with a name like "Certificate of Ownership" or "Certificate of Title", or possibly other words that represent clear and legal ownership of the vehicle in question. These are impressive documents, which contain the owner's full name and mailing address, a brief description of the car by make, model, a code for body style, and most importantly, the vehicle identification number, or VIN.

Since 1981, all new cars sold in the United States have used a federally mandated 17-digit VIN which can be confusing, but really does help in verifying that the right title has been issued to the proper vehicle. (Check the VIN decoder for a further explanation of what these numbers represent). Some states may have the license plate on the title, but due to the relative ease in changing these number tags most titles do not carry that information. Other titles may also have spaces for odometer readings, lien holders, legal versus registered owners, and possibly previous owners names and title numbers.

There's probably no way to be 100% certain that you have a proper title, but there are some signs to look out for. More than one of these is particularly troublesome.
  • The vehicle has an out of state title
  • The vehicle was recently brought in to your state, and has just been issued a new title
  • The vin plate attached to the car shows signs of tampering, or is obscured from plain view
  • The vehicle's history does not confirm what the seller has told you
  • The lines and text on the title are not razor sharp
  • Now, After carefully checking the car over, and making sure the serial numbers match on the title and on the car, you are guaranteed that you own the car and no one else can lay claim to it, right? "Wrong" according to Gary Dickinson who is the security director of ADT Automotive Services, "today in the world of automobile titles there are probably more fraudulent certificates out there than ever before. "Over the past decade or so many states have gone to great measures to try and combat counterfeit titles. Multi-color inks, safety paper, and micro-printing have all been employed in an attempt to defeat the con-artists out there, and while these measures have slowed down some of their activities, the problem still exists. "With all of the new computer technology," Dickinson stated, "there has been an explosion in recent years of fraudulent titles." Dickinson came to ADT Automotive from a long career in the Texas State Police where he specialized in vehicle theft recovery and title fraud. ADT offers services to dealers of new and previously owned vehicles as well as auction houses which deal with these products.

    While ADT's facilities are not generally used by the public, Dickinson has a number of pointers that the consumer can put to use in protecting their investment. "In 1978 I saw my first counterfeit title," he said, "I was assigned to the motor vehicle theft service in Texas. Phony titles from Michigan were coming into Texas via Missouri. "That first encounter with a bad title started Dickinson on a road that has given him over twenty years of being on the paper-trail of con-men around the country.

    Unfortunately, law enforcement and state agencies haven't always been keen to the message he has preached regarding these bogus certificates. In 1986 at a dealer-auction for used cars in New Mexico, Dickinson spotted over 100 fraudulent titles from the state of Nevada. He took them to the State Police and the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Despite his complaints, both agencies said there was nothing wrong with them. His persistence has brought the growing problem of counterfeit titles to the fore-front of the industry and the general public. Since then much of his work has been traveling around to various state motor vehicle agencies and conducting courses on identifying fake titles. Today, he cites Michigan as being the most highly prepared state that has employees trained in spotting and recognizing questionable and counterfeit titles as well as related documents.

    No matter what state agencies do with new computers and printing techniques to combat the con-artists out there, the criminals are also becoming high-tech and in some cases are able to duplicate an original with amazing clarity and speed. "Just within the past couple of years in Florida," Dickinson said, "a printer who had every high-tech toy in the book was arrested for creating not only counterfeit titles, but original vehicle Manufacturer's Statement of Origin, the document a car company issues to each vehicle they build when it is brand new before its first title is ever issued. As a result of this bust," Dickinson continued, "Florida initiated a in-depth training program within their DMV for each clerk. After training was completed, one office picked out over 200 counterfeit titles in one week. Since the word has gotten out on their new methods the cases of bad titles from Florida has dropped dramatically."

    We asked Dickinson what the consumer should look for in the way of spotting a possible counterfeit title. One of the most important cautions he mentioned was being twice as careful when buying a car with a title from a state other than the one where the transaction is taking place. He also listed a number of "clues" to watch for on the document itself:

    Most states official titles are printed on paper that feature watermarks which are visible when held to the light, where photocopied titles will be devoid of this feature.

    Check the borders of those states that used a "pantograph" style edging for crispness and clarity. Even the best photocopies will have a blurred look.

    If possible, compare the title with a known original and check for little details such as the above mentioned fine line printing, placement of information about the vehicle in question, or with a magnifying glass look for the micro-printing.

    If there is any question, contact your local motor vehicles registration department for confirmation of the title by making sure that the VIN on the paperwork matches the one on the car. (A special note, if the ID numbers on the dashboard appear to have been altered or obscured in anyway, this is a major red-flag to be alert to.)

    Generally speaking, buying a used car from a legitimate dealership is a pretty good sign that the title is authentic. However, in recent years some of the counterfeit titles out there have fooled even the best of the dealers. In these situations you may have to consult legal assistance should a phony title be discovered. Most used car dealers get their stock from dealer auctions, and if the vehicle came through an auction, the dealer can file a claim against that company which carries insurance just for this purpose. The main reason criminals create bogus titles is to try and cover up either a stolen vehicle, or to mask the car's past regarding original miles, or its value-diminishing history as a reclaimed junker or salvage unit. To paraphrase an old saying: if a car is offered to you at a price that is just too good to be true, it may very well be!

    Remember, no job is done--and no transfer finalized--until the paperwork is finished.