Consumer victory: National wreck registry is a reality

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Consumer Action is celebrating a joint victory with Public Citizen and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) to give used car consumers vital information. As of today, consumers will have access to a national database designed to alert them that the used car they’re about to buy has a dangerous past.

Consumers will be able to learn if a used car has been seriously damaged or stolen, based on information tied to the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN).

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) will contain title information from every state motor vehicle department, every junkyard, salvage yard and insurance carrier. The data will reveal if a car has been so badly damaged that it has been designated as a “totaled” vehicle, has been in a flood, fire, or is on record as stolen. It will also include information about the car’s appearance and its latest odometer reading.

Congress passed a law in 1992 mandating this database—but it took a lawsuit by CARS, Public Citizen and Consumer Action to get the program implemented.

“We are pleased that NMVTIS is finally available to help consumers avoid being duped into purchasing a rebuilt wreck or unsafe car without even knowing it,” said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.

The three consumer groups sued the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in federal court in San Francisco in 2007. The court ruled that DOJ had until Jan. 30, 2009, to issue a rule requiring states and private companies to report safety information and to make it available to the public. After a 16-year wait, the DOJ rule takes affect today requiring all 50 states to participate in this database. (Insurers and junkyards must start reporting information no later than March 30, 2009.) Currently, 27 states provide some data to NMVTIS, but only 13 states participate fully.

In fact some of the biggest states – California and New York - are trying to prevent consumer access to this car titling system for fear of losing valuable state revenue. State motor vehicle departments currently earn millions of dollars per year selling title information to private companies like Carfax and AutoCheck.

“As Consumer Action is headquartered in California, we are outraged that the state with the most vehicles is trying to limit consumer access to car safety data that could prevent accidents and save lives,” said Sherry. “California is often recognized as a leader in consumer protections, but in this case it has taken a wrong turn.”

Because no database is foolproof, Consumer Action continues to recommend that used-car consumers get all vehicles carefully inspected by an independent mechanic before they make a purchase. “If a seller balks at this, walk away,” said Sherry. “It’s a good sign they have something to hide.”

NMVTIS data will be made available to consumers for a few dollars through third party operators. For more information on how to access the data collected by NMVTIS, go to

In addition, Consumer Action supports a recommendation by CARS president Rosemary Shahan of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety to provide a NMVTIS printout at no cost to consumers on the window of every used car for sale. “We agree with CARS that this would be a cost effective way to ensure that car buyers are well informed about the vehicle.”


Consumer Action, founded in 1971, is a consumer education and advocacy organization headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, DC.




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