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.

Julie Daniels
Insurance expert
minute read
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Posted 8 JANUARY 2021

What happens if I buy a stolen car?

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.

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 face prosecution. Also, the police have the authority to seize your vehicle and return it to the original owner.

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

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 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 which offer a more thorough vehicle history check.

What will a vehicle history check tell me?

You’ll be given a thorough report about the history of 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
  • 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
  • Logbook check – if the V5C logbook 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 - £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 always pays to be cautious when buying a used car:

  • Check the address of the seller. Ask to see the V5C logbook and make sure it matches their address. Never agree to meet in a different, random location like a pub car park or a lay-by.
  • If they don’t have a V5C logbook, walk away. Never buy a car without the V5C logbook.
  • 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 logbook has a DVLA watermark.
  • Ensure that the VIN/chassis number on the car matches with that in the logbook.
  • 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. 

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’ve got a dodgy car, keep calm.

First thing's 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.

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.

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