Beware flooded cars! WREG-Carfax test reveals consumers can easily get duped

MEMPHIS, Tenn. --  Cars damaged by flood waters in Texas and Florida could soon end up in driveways here in the MidSouth, and  a WREG consumer investigation reveals it's a danger buyers might not be able to detect.

Insurance industry experts say more than half a million flood damaged cars from Texas and Florida have already been processed. The numbers from Hurricane Harvey alone top other disasters like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

While many will be sold, legally, for scraps, others will go under the radar, to unsuspecting buyers who have no idea what they're getting.

News Channel 3 teamed up with Carfax to see if consumers could tell the difference between a flood car, and a used car with no damage. The results prove consumers must take some important steps to protect themselves from water damaged disasters.

The Carfax Used Car Challenge included three cars, that all looked good from the outside, except one of them had a major problem.

It was flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

The test reveals how easy it is for crooks to disguise dangerous damage.

Chris Basso with Carfax told WREG, "These cars literally rot from the inside out. So what we wanted to do, was demonstrate, just how easily a flood car can be cleaned up, made to look like any used car that`s out there, and how people can easily get duped into buying one."

Carfax borrowed two of the cars from one of their partner dealerships in the MidSouth.

The other one came from Texas.

"This car was taken from Houston, it was damaged during Hurricane Harvey and was one of the vehicles that was sitting on that racetrack lot," Basso explained.

Carfax bought the car, cleaned it up and brought it to Memphis.

We parked all three, side by side in a Kroger parking lot in Whitehaven.

We then asked customers if they could tell which car had a defect. WREG and Carfax encouraged participants to look at each vehicle thoroughly.

Each tester took a different approach. Most looked inside, and on the outside of each vehicle, as well as checked underneath the hood.

Some said it was tough to tell which car had a defect. In fact the majority of the testers guessed the incorrect vehicle.

Will Sutton was one of the few people, who got it right.

He checked the inside, outside and even the trunks of each car, and eventually settled on the white, 2013 Ford Focus.

His explanation of the defect was spot on.

"Because when I looked at the drive shaft that comes down through the dash board that`s connected to the gear box out here, it`s a lot of rust on that and it`s none on these two," said Sutton, pointing to the cars.

Sutton knew what to look for.

"I`m a mobile detailer and I have detailed some cars that came from Katrina."

After we told each tester which car had a defect and explained it had been flooded during Hurricance Harvey, then cleaned up, several of them said they noticed the smell.

Basso them walked each individual around the car, pointing out spots with rust and debris that Carfax purposely left behind.

It was a tough challenge even for people familiar with cars like Jerome Mackey.

"A trained eye like me, missed something on it, but an untrained eye, wouldn`t even look for that and they would buy it, said Mackey.

Avoiding a flood damaged car takes some simple, yet critical steps.

Check the vehicle history report for flood damage

Carfax provides information about flood damage on cars for free. Consumers simply plug in the VIN.

Conduct a thorough inspection of the car:

  • Flood damaged cars tend to have a mildew smell (even if they've been cleaned up)
  • Check for rust and debris in every part of the car, including on the tires and on bolts and screws
  • Look inside the trunk
  • Touch the fabric
  • Use a flashlight to check areas that are hard to see

Take the vehicle to an independent mechanic for an inspection

Cory Jones is a technician with Gateway Tire and Auto in East Memphis.

Jones told WREG, "We can check it out and see if they're being honest with you. We'll pull the wheels off, check the brakes, check everything underneath."

Basso says it's a check that can protect consumers from a bad deal, and dangerous car.

"These cars are ticking time bombs."

Mechanics say while flood damaged cars might run for a while, parts like the engine, along with the electronics and other components can fail quickly after significant water damage.

More information on avoiding flood damaged cars.