EARL GRUBBS of Cranberry Township, Pa., hadn’t even arrived home from the dealership with his new car before the air bag warning light came on. It was last October, and he had just bought a used 2005 Buick LaCrosse CSX with only 45 miles on the odometer for $20,000.
Mr. Grubbs, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, thought he had gotten a great deal on a car that cost about $30,000 new. It was a certified General Motors used car, and a Carfax vehicle history report showed that the Buick had never been damaged.
But like the telltale heart of the Edgar Allan Poe story, the air bag light linked the car to its troubled past. Mr. Grubbs had bought the car far from, and about a year after, the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast. Still, when he took the car to be repaired at a Buick dealership near his suburban Pittsburgh home, he said the service staff traced the car to a Buick dealer in Florida, where the staff told him several vehicles had been damaged by Hurricane Wilma. Mr. Grubbs’s car had been one of them.
According to an e-mail message from G.M. that Mr. Grubbs received after he complained to the company, his Buick had been damaged by flying debris during the storm, and body work had been done on the front fenders, the front doors, the hood, the roof panel and the trunk. Also, the windshield had been replaced.
“I negotiated on a vehicle without knowing what had happened to it,” Mr. Grubbs said.
George Bowling, owner of Waynesburg Carriage, where Mr. Grubbs bought the car, said in an interview that his dealership had bought the Buick at a G.M.-sponsored auction and was not told it had been damaged.
Carfax estimates that about 500,000 vehicles were damaged in Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. Consumer groups, political leaders and car dealers said they were concerned that some of the cars would be repaired and resold through a practice known as title-washing, by which a vehicle with a flood or salvage title in one state is issued a new, clean title in another.
An analysis of motor vehicle records from September 2005 to August 2006 by Experian Automotive, which also provides vehicle histories, showed that 15,000 vehicles damaged by the hurricanes were retitled in other states, with 45 percent, or 7,000, getting clean titles.
“A number of these cars are unsafe and shouldn’t be on the roads,” Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said in a news release in February when he introduced a bill that would make it harder to sell such vehicles. “And folks are overpaying for vehicles they believe are mechanically sound. To the untrained eye, they appear to be in good shape.”
The problem for consumers is that it is hard to determine a vehicle’s history, even with the best efforts. Many consumers confine their sleuthing to buying vehicle-history reports from companies like Carfax, but those reports depend on data provided by state motor vehicle departments and other sources. Dealers and lawyers said this information was often incomplete or out of date. Mr. Grubbs’s car, for example, still earned a clean report from Carfax and Experian’s AutoCheck service in February.
In January, Carfax settled a class-action lawsuit regarding its advertising by agreeing, among other things, to provide a clear warning on its Web site that its vehicle histories may be incomplete.
“We’ve always been very clear that the Carfax report is only one tool that consumers should use,” said Larry Gamache, the company’s communications director.
Mr. Grubbs’s experience seems to be rare. While consumer groups and government watchdogs are on the lookout for cases like it, more than a year and a half after the hurricanes there have been few complaints about hurricane-damaged cars. William L. Brauch, director for consumer protection for the Iowa attorney general’s office who works on automobile issues for the National Association of Attorneys General, said the association had not heard one hurricane-related car complaint. If there had been some, he said, “It’s likely we would have heard about it.”
Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety in Sacramento, said consumers could have bought hurricane-damaged cars without knowing it in what she called salvage fraud, where cars that insurers have declared total losses are repaired and resold without the seller disclosing the damage.
A. Jayson Adair, the president of Copart, an auto salvage company based in Fairfield, Calif., said he doubted that any of the Katrina cars his company auctioned ended up back on the road. He said most were older models and had been badly flooded, not candidates for rebuilding or resale. He said the cars were sold to recyclers for scrap or to dismantlers for parts.
“They were junk,” he said. “I get a kick out of reading that people are driving around in Katrina cars. Dismantlers and recyclers bought them.”
Soon after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, Copart converted 180 acres of a cow pasture near Gulfport, Miss., into a salvage yard, storing 30,000 vehicles collected after the hurricane. In a 2006 report, subtitled “The Katrina Story,” the company recounted its efforts to process and sell the vehicles from a hurriedly assembled trailer city in the pasture, housing hundreds of employees brought in from around the country. Copart, which auctions cars for insurance companies seeking to recoup their losses on vehicles that have been declared a total loss, said it sold about 65,000 vehicles damaged by Katrina from this lot and others, and crushed another 10,000.
In an effort to ensure that flood-ruined cars are indeed destroyed, Louisiana passed a law in late 2005 requiring that a certificate of destruction, not a title, is issued on a vehicle that has been declared a total loss by its insurer after being flooded in a state-declared disaster. Vehicles issued these certificates can only be crushed or sold for parts. (Of course, even a certificate of destruction is no guarantee a car won’t reappear. As of last week, someone on eBay was selling details on how to upgrade a certificate of destruction so a car could be put back on the road.)
The law was sponsored by State Representative M. J. Smiley Jr., who said he wanted to stop title-washing.
“I knew that if I didn’t do this bill, dealers would be getting so many complaints because of electrical malfunctions and air bags and antilock brakes,” said Mr. Smiley, who is also a used car dealer.
The law took effect on Dec. 6, 2005, but Mr. Smiley said, “A lot of cars got taken out of Louisiana in anticipation of the bill.”
Some consumer and trade groups said they thought that the only reliable safeguard would be federal legislation compelling insurance companies to disclose information about vehicles declared total losses, including the date and odometer reading, the primary reason for the declaration and whether the air bag had deployed. Senator Lott reintroduced such a bill last month after Congress failed to act on it last year.
David W. Regan, vice president for legislative affairs of the National Automobile Dealers Association, said his group supported the Lott bill because “we think there are instances every year in which vehicles declared a total loss are not retitled as salvage or flooded, and dealers want to know what they’re buying at auctions.
“There is concern because there are reports that Katrina vehicles are circulating at the wholesale level,” he added, where reconditioned cars are auctioned to dealers.
And sometimes the cars keep circulating at the consumer level. Mr. Grubbs got a refund in February from Waynesburg Carriage. G.M. also paid his legal fees. But after the Buick was returned to the dealer, it was put on the market again. A salesman at Waynesburg said Thursday that the car was sold more than a week ago, with full disclosure about the hurricane damage.