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How to check if a car is stolen

Buying a used car privately can sometimes be risky. If a bargain seems too good to be true, are you sure it’s an honest sale? Here’s what you can do to check if a car is stolen.

Buying a used car privately can sometimes be risky. If a bargain seems too good to be true, are you sure it’s an honest sale? Here’s what you can do to check if a car is stolen.

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance comparison expert
Reviewed by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
4 OCTOBER 2022
6 min read
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What happens if I buy a stolen car?

Police and insurance provider databases will soon spot if a car is stolen. This means as soon as you take it out on the road and it’s spotted by an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera, you could find yourself in legal trouble. It will be up to you to prove that you didn’t know the car was stolen and you could even face prosecution. Also, the police have the authority to seize your vehicle and return it to its rightful owner.

To avoid losing thousands of pounds and to save yourself a lot of hassle, it’s vital to do some research before buying a second-hand car from a private seller.

Is it easy to tell if a car is stolen?

When you buy a second-hand car, it can be almost impossible to spot whether it has a hidden history simply by inspecting it. Ultimately, it’s up to you, the buyer, to do a background check on the vehicle. Fortunately, there are several ways of doing this.

How can I find out if a car is stolen?

You can do some checks for free using the GOV.UK website. There you can check the details of the vehicle to see if they match the ones you’ve been given by the seller, including:

  • Information held by the DVLA
  • MOT status and history
  • Safety recalls because of a serious safety issue and whether they’ve been checked or fixed.

You can use the Motor Insurance Database to find out if the car is insured. Also, there are a number of motoring organisations including the AA, RAC and HPI that offer a more thorough vehicle history check.

What will a vehicle history check tell me?

As well as telling you whether a car is stolen, a thorough vehicle history check will also tell you about other aspects of the car, including whether it has any outstanding finance and whether it’s been written off. You’ll be given a report about the car, including:

  • Stolen car check – if the car is marked as stolen on the Police National Computer.
  • Outstanding finance – if there’s any outstanding loan or finance still owing on the car.
  • Vehicle identity – if the car’s details, make model, colour and engine match those recorded by the DVLA.
  • Number plate and VIN – if the number plate (also known as the vehicle registration mark or VRM) and vehicle identification number (VIN) match those recorded by the DVLA.
  • Number plate changes – if the number plates have been changed at all – there could be an honest reason, but it could also be vehicle identity theft, known as car cloning.
  • Scrapped car check – if the car’s been marked scrapped by the DVLA
  • Mileage check – data from the National Mileage Records (NMR) to find mileage discrepancies – in other words, if the car has been clocked. Tampering with mileage is on the rise: it’s estimated that as many as one in 14 cars on UK roads could be clocked.
  • Insurance write off – if the car has been written off and declared a total loss by the insurance provider, it could be a ‘cut-and-shut’ job – two cars welded together.
  • Log book check – if the V5C log book is genuine or has been stolen.
  • Previous owners – how many previous owners/registered keepers are recorded by the DVLA.

How much does a vehicle history check cost?

Vehicle history checks are typically around £6 to £20, depending on the provider and package you choose. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind that the seller of the vehicle is honest and the car is legitimately for sale. All you need is the vehicle’s registration number.

Tips to avoid buying a stolen car

While most private sellers are the real deal, it’s always worth being cautious when buying a used car:

  • Check the address of the seller. Ask to see the V5C log book and make sure it matches their address.
  • Never agree to meet in an isolated location like a pub car park or a lay-by.
  • If the seller doesn’t have a V5C log book, walk away. Never buy a car without the V5C log book.
  • Check the V5C document against the MOT documents and service history. Be wary of a service history that’s not complete or is inconsistent.
  • Make sure the V5C log book has a DVLA watermark.
  • Check that the log book serial number isn’t between BG8229501 to BG9999030, or BI2305501 to BI2800000. The log book might be stolen if it is.
  • Ensure that the VIN/chassis number on the car matches with that in the log book.
  • Be very wary of a car that’s offered for sale well below the market value for that make, model and year. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you’d be wise to walk away.
  • The same advice goes if the seller wants cash. If the car does turn out to be stolen, you won’t have proof of purchase.
  • Spend a few pounds on a vehicle history check to confirm the sale is legit.

If you’re buying a car online, also be aware of ‘virtual vehicle’ scams. These involve selling a non-existent car. The scammer will copy a genuine ad and post it online. They’ll then ask potential buyers to contact them directly, and persuade them to hand over their bank details.  The car will never arrive and the buyer’s details will be compromised.

Read our checklist for buying a used car.

What should I do if the car I bought is stolen?

If you didn’t do a stolen car check, but you now realise you have a dodgy car, keep calm.

First things first, call the police. Give them the car details and they’ll provide you with a crime reference number. You’ll need this for when you contact your insurance provider. Then contact your insurance provider immediately. They’ll let you know if you can make an insurance claim.

Can I get my money back if I bought a stolen car?

The police won’t give you any compensation for confiscating the car because it’s stolen property and you’re not the legal owner. If your car insurance covers ‘purchase of stolen vehicles’ you might get some compensation, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get your money back.

It’s not likely that a car brought from a dealership would be stolen, but if this happened, you’d be entitled to a full refund from the seller under the Consumer Rights Act.

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Julie Daniels - motor insurance comparison expert

Julie is passionate about delivering a great customer experience and rewarding people for saving on their insurance through our loyalty and rewards programme. She’s spoken to the media, including outlets like Sky News and Capital FM, about car and home insurance, as well as our rewards scheme.

Learn more about Julie

Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory

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