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How to check if a car has been stolen

March 31, 2023 by

Buying a car is always a big moment, but in all the excitement, it can be easy to cause yourself a headache if you don’t carry out the proper checks before handing over your hard-earned cash.

One thing you really do want to avoid is buying a stolen car, because even if you buy it in good faith, that isn’t always enough to keep yourself out of trouble. Here, we’ll explain what could happen if you do buy a stolen car, and how to avoid it in the first place.  If you’re looking to buy a used car, Carwow’s car history checker can help.

What happens if I buy a stolen car?

If you buy a stolen car, it’s unlikely you’ll get away with it for long. When a car is reported stolen, its details are put onto a police database. Every time you pass an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera, your number plate is checked against this database.

As soon as you drive the stolen car past one of these cameras, the police will be alerted and will pull you over.

Once this happens, the police have the power to immediately seize the vehicle, so you’ve potentially wasted thousands of pounds on a car you can’t drive.

Even if the car has been cloned and is wearing the number plates of a different example of the same make and model of car, its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) will be stamped throughout the bodywork, so its true identity can be easily determined with a little light investigatory work.

How can I check if a car is stolen?

A vehicle history check is a good way to avoid buying a stolen car. Also known as an HPI check (though this is one company out of many conducting such checks), these tools can tell you numerous things about a car, such as whether it has been written off, has outstanding finance or if it has been stolen.

Prices vary depending on the service and detail of information provided. You can find out if a car is stolen through a basic HPI search that usually costs around £10, but more detailed guides can cost around £20.

How can I avoid buying a stolen car?

An HPI check alone will not guarantee the car you’re looking at is not stolen. For example, some criminals ‘clone’ number plates from a similar, road legal car to avoid detection. HPI checks will give information such as the car’s colour, mileage and number of doors, so look out for any discrepancies.

Another way is to make sure the seller provides the V5C log book, then check the name and address match what you’ve been given. You could also ask them to show you their ID.

You should also find the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and see that it matches what’s in the log book. The VIN can usually be located on the dashboard or inside the driver’s side door. Remember: Never buy a car without a log book.

Finally, be more suspicious of cars that are offered well below their market value – if a deal looks too good to be true, it might be. And if a buyer wants to meet in a remote location away from their home, this should ring alarm bells, too.

What should I do if I’ve bought a stolen car?

Citizens Advice says that if you think you’ve bought stolen goods, you should call the police on 101 or visit your local police station immediately. Attempting to return it to the seller could be considered ‘handling stolen goods’, which is illegal and could get you in hot water.

You will be given a crime reference number that you can use to inform the seller that you have handed the item over to the police. Since October 1, 2015, this then entitles you to a full refund, though if the seller refuses you might be able to get your money back from your bank if you used a debit or credit card, so it’s always a good idea to pay by card if possible.

If you’re still having trouble getting a refund, you could make a court claim for the money you’ve lost, which Citizens Advice says is particularly useful for ‘an expensive item like a car’.

This is a very long and difficult process that you are far from guaranteed to win, though.