New national registry lets you inexpensively look up your used car's history

If you'd like to make sure the used car you're about to purchase wasn't once used by, say, a sweet old widow before it was pilfered by a gang of auto thieves and then eventually sold to your dealership, this is the place to go: the NMVTIS, or National Motor Vehicle Title Information System Resource Center.

This is otherwise know as "the wreck registry."

Last Friday, after 16 years of litigation from three consumer safety groups, the U.S. Department of Justice has created an online database available to states, law enforcement officials and consumers who want to discover the origins of their automobiles.

The fee for accessing this information--through third-party companies that can be found at the NMVTIS web site--is $2.25 to $3.50. The national database will include cars that have been stolen, in wrecks, or decimated in a fire or flood. The database keeps track of the cars by their VIN (vehicle identification number). The VIN is to cars what fingerprints are to humans.Eventually, the database will have information reported to it from every auto insurer, state motor-vehicle department and junk or salvage yard, but at the moment, only 13 states are completely complying and 14 other states are offering some but not all data. Fourteen more, including California, New York and Pennsylvania, are refusing to participate for now, and 10 states are drifting "toward compliance," according to Consumer Reports.

The states that are refusing to participate -- and you can see for yourself by looking at the nice helpful map at the NMVTIS web site -- are California, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois, Utah, Kansas, North Dakota, Mississippi, Maine, Connecticut, Maryland, Alaska and Hawaii. Oh, and Washington, D.C. -- they're not furnishing car information either.

Why the resistance? Doesn't this sound like a great idea? Shouldn't all states and Washington, D.C., want to help out consumers?

Well, sure, you would think: but some critics say that the states who are resisting don't want to give up the millions of dollars that they're currently making from selling information about used cars to private companies like CarFax, which charges $29.99 to check out the history of one car, and Experian, which charges $14.99, which is also the price for AutoCheck. CarProof, based out of Canada, will check a car's history for $34.95.

At some point, if all states don't comply, and a federal judge said that they have to, expect some more lawsuits. Getting a site that covers 100% of the cars out there, or anything close to one hundred percent, could take awhile.

Still, this Web site is a start and has the potential to someday catch car thieves and save lives--if you consider, for instance, how many cars wiped out in Hurricane Katrina were nonetheless being salvaged and secretly being sold to consumers around the country. According to the National Auto Dealers Association, more than 571,000 cars were flooded, and it's assumed that quite a few of those -- which may or may not be safe to drive -- made their ways to other parts of the country where unsuspecting buyers wouldn't think to investigate whether their shiny new-to-them vehicle might have once been underwater.

So in the meantime, if you're buying a used car with a lot of history behind it, other than the NMVTIS, you can also go to the National Insurance Crime Bureau site, and they'll check your used car's history for free. Also, if you're concerned about your possible future car's history, you can almost certainly convince a dealership to eat the costs of paying for a CarFax or AutoCheck report.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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