When Sherry Gonsalves went shopping for a used car in 1997, she didn’t expect to get a crash course in auto deception. Gonsalves paid $11,700 for a 1996 Neon from a large well-known dealership. Gonsalves asked if the vehicle had ever been in an accident and was assured it had not. “The car looked sparkling clean and brand new when I bought it,” recalls Gonsalves. After she took delivery of the vehicle, however, she noticed minor flaws: the front passenger seat rubbed against the centre console and a close inspection of the paint showed the roof and door didn’t match perfectly.
Gonsalves then located the original owner and learned the car had been T-boned in a collision and written off by an insurer. Too damaged to safely repair (or just too costly), it was sold at a salvage auction and rebuilt and painted – a driving disaster waiting to happen. The dealership purchased the car, which was clearly marked “accident repair,” and later sold it to Gonsalves. After fighting with the dealer, Gonsalves got her money back, but when I later called the dealer posing as a customer, I, too, was assured the car hadn’t been in an accident. “It’s mind-boggling that this happens and people get away with it,” says Gonsalves. Five years after Gonsalves’s brush with deceit, Ontario has not enacted mandatory legislation requiring that a writeoff’s registration be red flagged, making it the lone holdout province in Canada. Legislation is expected soon but will not be retroactive, so that Neon could end up in another province with a clean title because it wasn’t red flagged in Ontario.
The exact number of rebuilt wrecks out there is impossible to calculate but, according to Cheryl Munce, president of Impact Auto Auctions, only about 70 per cent of the 70,000 vehicles written off every year in Ontario are red flagged as wrecks under the current voluntary reporting system. That leaves about 21,000 vehicles a year that either end up on the scrap heap, are safely repaired or are given a facelift and sold to unsuspecting buyers. “We’ve seen people with a lot of auto expertise be fooled,” says Laura Gordon, director of compliance at the Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council, the provincial dealer watchdog.
Provinces other than Ontario have programs to ensure wrecked vehicles aren’t put back on the road unless they’re rebuilt to certain standards. John Norris, executive director of the Hamilton-based Collision Industry Action Group, says rebuilt vehicles may look great but lack structural integrity, the only thing reventing you from being crushed in a crash. New vehicle warranties typically have a clause voiding the coverage if the vehicle has been written off. “It could be a death trap on wheels,” says Norris. “You won’t know until you have an accident and by then, it’s too late.”
When wrecks aren’t red flagged, they can also end up on the salvage heap while their “clean” serial numbers are used to conceal stolen cars sold to unsuspecting buyers. Unfortunately, there are some shady operators who are profiting from lax laws. Some pose as private sellers, a practice known as curbsiding. “If you’re dealing with a curbsider, there’s a higher likelihood the vehicle is stolen, has liens or is a rebuilt salvage vehicle,” notes Gordon.
One woman who contacted me in 2000 was told the 1990 Jetta she bought had had only one owner. It wasn’t until after the purchase, however, that she obtained the vehicle’s history and discovered it had been registered to 10 previous owners, including an auto wrecker. Since she bought privately and didn’t even have a receipt, she had little recourse. “There are too many consumers who take things at face value and lots of unscrupulous people out there are ready to rip them off,” says Norris.
Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.
Get the vehicle history from your local transportation authority.