Consumers should be wary of flooded cars hitting the market after Hurricane Ida

By: - September 10, 2021 7:01 am

Elizabeth residents clean up after the remnants of Hurricane Ida tore through New Jersey. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

The car market has been a volatile one during the coronavirus pandemic, and now buyers should be extra careful as storm-ravaged vehicles could appear in the low-inventory market.

Carfax estimated thousands of cars with flood damage from Hurricane Sandy were cleaned and place for sale on used car lots back in 2013. As New Jerseyans continue to recover from Ida’s flooding, the National Insurance Crime Bureau is urging caution to unsuspecting consumers who need to replace their damaged cars.

NICB is a trade group for auto insurers and lenders that tracks car thefts and related crimes.

“Obviously, the potential for dealers to try to take advantage of unsuspecting customers is there and as such, it is vitally important for people to know that in this time of diminished car inventory, some cars may show up that have been flooded and cleaned,” said Tully Lehman, public affairs manager with the group.

Lehman said Ida’s massive flooding likely caused extensive damage even to newer cars with strong water-proofing measures. Any significant amount of water in a car is bad for its electronic components, Lehman said.

He added these swamped cars aren’t dangerous just to buyers, but to other drivers on the road. The water can harm anti-lock brake systems, accident sensors used to deploy airbags, charging or ignition systems, and the engine.

The NICB sees crooked dealers scamming consumers by selling damaged cars after every major hurricane or flooding event. This time around, though, it’s being compounded with the high demand for cars amid a microchip production shortage.

More than 250,000 insurance claims were filed after Sandy swept through the region in 2012. A used car dealership owner was sentenced to three years in jail in 2013 after using fraudulent vehicle titles to sell flooded cars in Middlesex County, and a former Motor Vehicle Commissioner technician admitted to creating false “clean” titles for the cars.

To help protect consumers, NICB has an online database that allows buyers to check a vehicle for red flags and double-check what you’re hearing from a dealer.

If you are told the car you’re buying is a blue 2006 Honda Accord, but when you look up the VIN it says it’s a 2004 or that its color is black, you’ll know something is up, Lehman said.

“It could be an honest mistake by the seller, or perhaps not. In this case, best to walk away,” he said.

The Division of Consumer Affairs has not yet received any complaints of vehicles damaged by Ida flooding being sold. Anyone with information on disaster-related fraud in the coming weeks can report it online or by phone at 973-504-6240.

NICB’s tips for buying a car after major flooding events

  • Check for water stains, mildew, or sand under the carpets and floor mats, and behind the dashboard
  • Look for a recently shampooed carpet, rust on screws where water wouldn’t normally reach, and moisture on the seatbelts
  • Turn on the speakers, which are often noticeably damaged by flooding
  • Remove spare tire and inspect for water damage
  • Look under the hood for oxidation or corrosion
  • Ask about the vehicle history, inspect the title and ownership papers for any salvage fraud, and conduct a title search of the car
  • Have a mechanic perform an inspection
  • Trust your instincts

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.