CARFAX Debunked

If you’ve ever looked into purchasing a used car, you’ve probably heard about CarFax. Run the car’s VIN through CarFax, and if it comes up clean, the car is good to go… right?

CarFax and similar companies compile information from a variety of sources, including the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), dealers, insurance companies, auto auctions, and law enforcement agencies. However, your $35 report only knows what CarFax is told. It will probably have information about the most severe accidents—those in which the car was declared a total loss. Some accidents are never reported, or are reported to sources that don’t provide information to CarFax.

A few years back, Consumer Reports ordered dozens of vehicle reports from five vehicle report providers on damaged vehicles. Many of the reports came up clean when the cars were not. One obviously totaled Acura—every inch of it crumpled—received a clean report from all five services checked.

“Wrecks can maintain clean titles if the vehicle doesn’t have collision insurance, is self-insured as with many rental and fleet vehicles, or has damage falling below the ‘total loss’ threshold, which can vary by state,” read the 2009 report.

Even NMVTIS admits to having access to only 88 percent of DMV data—and Oregon is not a participating state. That is, Oregon is not required to provide data to the DMV or make any inquiries about a vehicle before issuing a title.

Common sense is the only sure way to find out a car’s history. Inspect the car, inside and out. Drive it. Have a mechanic look at it. Check the title. And buy a vehicle report to see if anything is obviously wrong—but don’t consider it the end-all if it comes up “clean.” For more information, visit


By Jen Matteis