Conducting a License Plate/VIN Check

March 30, 2017

Before purchasing a used vehicle, there are a few steps that every buyer should take to protect themselves from fraudulent sellers. Besides having a technician of your choosing perform a complete inspection of the vehicle, it is imperative that the vehicle is screened by vehicle identification number (VIN) and license plate.  Even if the vehicle is being purchased from a dealership, the dealership may have failed to exercise due diligence when purchasing the vehicle, or the dealership may be dishonest. Also, the risk of fraud escalates when purchasing from an unknown private seller, especially if they will not allow a complete inspection of the vehicle, or divulge the VIN. In either situation, it is better to walk away from the vehicle.

What is the VIN?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires nearly all vehicle to carry a unique identifier which prevents the vehicle from being confused with any other vehicle. The VIN is stamped in several places on each vehicle, and can provide information even before running the VIN check.

The VIN number is commonly found on the driver’s side of the dashboard, and can be read through the front windshield. There are also stickers which the manufacturer is required to place in several locations on most vehicles, including the driver door jamb, under the hood, in the trunk, or even under the carpet. It is not necessary to check every VIN number location for the year, make and model you are viewing, but if the VIN plate or sticker seems to have been disturbed, checking other locations will indicate whether the vehicle advertised is the vehicle being sold. This is especially useful when a seller has replaced large structural sections of a vehicle, since there may now be multiple VIN numbers on a vehicle. Also, if the engine does not match the VIN number, either the VIN is not native to the vehicle, or the engine has been replaced. 

It should be understood that not all states offer free or paid license plate lookup services. In those cases, it's only law enforcement officials who can do such searches. If you live in a state that does not offer license plate lookups, you may call the non-emergency number of the local city, county, or state law enforcement agency and ask them to run a check to be sure that the vehicle is not stolen. That is the most information most law enforcement agencies within these particular states will offer.

Secondly, be sure to investigate any service claiming to provide more than they are legally capable of under the law. There are many license plate and VIN search sites on the web that are scams. Use with caution and at your own risk.

There are quite a number of online license plate and VIN number search sites that offer a wide array of services beyond general vehicle information, most of which you must become a member of in order to gain full access. When you visit these sites, they will inform you that plate searches are limited to vehicle information, VIN data, vehicle history, recall, safety information, and possibly a little driver information, depending upon the state from which you're inquiring from.

Why would you consider doing a license plate check?

  • If you are in the market to buy a used vehicle, you may want to know more about the vehicle that you are looking to purchase. You can find important information about its history that can prove whether the vehicle is what the seller says it is.

  • Usually, searches are done via VIN (vehicle identification number). A license plate check can reveal the vehicle's VIN.

  • New scams are making media headlines these days that involve scammers targeting potential car buyers on sites such as Craigslist. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for the plate number or VIN of any car you are planning on looking at. Doing a search will let you know a little bit about the individual with whom you will be doing business with. 

What can a license plate or VIN check tell me?

One of the most important aspects of purchasing a used vehicle is its history: Has it ever been stolen, wrecked, or had flood damage? If the vehicle was insured, more likely than not, this information will be available. The only time this type of information is not available is if the previous owner did not have insurance and/or opted to pay out-of-pocket for the damages (which can happen in certain instances).

If you are purchasing the vehicle from an auto body and paint repair shop, there is a high chance the vehicle has been in a collision, and, since the repairs were likely made on-site, the damage may have never been reported to insurance. This means the vehicle history report will not show the true history of the vehicle. 

If you are planning on purchasing a used vehicle from anyone, it is always a wise choice to use a reputable license plate or VIN check service, or if at all possible, visit your local police or sheriff's office and inquire with them. Most of the time (again, depending upon the state regulations) law enforcement authorities will be more than glad to assist you within their given jurisdiction.

About the Author

Kimberlea Buczeke is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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