Nestor Fernandez always wanted a family car so when he found a minivan at a good price on Craigslist he was hooked.
"I called him, and we set up a meeting," Fernandez told NBC 6 in Spanish.
Concerned about the vehicle’s history, he checked that it didn’t have a rebuilt title. He asked the seller if the title was clean. He was told it was.
Fernandez said he felt reassured by the answer, so he paid $8,700 in cash and drove away.
But a short time later, he took the van to a dealer for a recall and was told it wasn’t covered because the vehicle had been declared a total loss two years ago.
"Definitely it looks like a rebuilt car that should’ve been branded as a rebuilt in the title and for one reason or another it wasn’t,” said Tony Fernandez, a supervisor with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in Southeast Florida.
Fernandez looked at the vehicle’s history and found it was auctioned off following a bad crash in Virginia.
"The insurance company sold it in auction so somewhere along the line there should’ve been a rebuilt paperwork done in that vehicle. But how it got to Florida and how the paperwork got to Florida I don’t know," said Fernandez.
If the vehicle was repaired legally, the title should have the word "rebuilt" on it. The side panel door should also have a sticker branding it “rebuilt”.
NBC 6 took the minivan to mechanic Julio Martinez with All Import Tech.
"The impact on this car was so severe that it took off the majority of everything that you see here," said Martinez showing the front end of the minivan. He explained ways he felt the vehicle hadn’t been repaired correctly.
"A lot of these things were probably salvaged from another car and they put it back together, basically like a transformer, to make it work," said Martinez. "I can guarantee you that there is no airbag in here."
We wanted to know how a vehicle in this condition ended up in South Florida. NBC 6 asked the state agency that issued the clean title.
"The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) relies on the Department of Justice’s National Motor Vehicle Titling and Insurance System to verify information on titles for motor vehicles that cross state lines,” said Alexis Bakofsky, a spokesperson for FLHSMV. "That’s not to say that fraud cannot occur."
NBC 6 ran a search using that same system and paid $3.71. The report showed the crash in Virginia but indicated the vehicle was never re-branded as rebuilt. A spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) says that’s because it shouldn’t have been rebuilt.
"That vehicle with that VIN number was given a non-repairable certificate for Virginia," said Virginia DMV spokesperson Brandy Brubaker.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles says their system just checks the box labeled brand before issuing the new title. Since it was blank, the van was registered as a clean vehicle here in Florida.
NBC 6 Responds reached the man who sold Nestor Fernandez the van. By phone, he denied doing anything wrong but couldn’t explain how he got the vehicle.
He agreed to talk to Fernandez about reimbursing his money but that never happened. So, Fernandez filed a report with the Florida Highway Patrol and the agency is investigating. It can be a crime if someone sells a car without telling them it’s rebuilt, but it can be difficult to prove.
“You’ve got to show that he knew the vehicle had been rebuilt,” said Tony Fernandez with the NICB.
To avoid these situations, never buy a car from an unknown source, have it checked by your mechanic before you buy it and get a car history report like the one we got from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or using Carfax. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also provides a free VIN check.