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How to check if a car is stolen or still on hire purchase

Before you buy a used car, check you don’t unwittingly buy a car that is stolen or still on hire purchase.

If you buy a stolen car, the police can return it to the original owner or the insurance company. If you buy a car that is still on a hire purchase agreement, the lender could take it back. In both cases, you won't be guaranteed to get your money back or any compensation.

This page explains what you can do to make sure the seller has the right to sell the car.

Top tips

It doesn’t take long or cost much to verify the car’s history. Doing some simple checks before you buy could save you a lot of money and distress in the long run.

How can you tell if it's a stolen car?

It can be hard to tell whether a car is stolen, but you can look out for these warning signs:

  • the seller can't produce the vehicle registration document (V5C)
  • there are spelling mistakes or alterations on the V5C, or it doesn't have a watermark
  • the name and address on the V5C is different to what's on the seller's driving licence, passport, or recent gas or electricity bill
  • the identifying numbers on the car don't match the numbers on the V5C
  • the engine and VIN numbers have been tampered with. Look out for areas of glass that's been scratched off the windows, or stickers covering up alterations to the etching
  • the seller cannot show you the insurance policy for the car.

If the seller can’t produce the registration document (V5C)

A common excuse is that the registration document has been sent to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for updating. This may be true if, for example, the seller has changed address recently. However, you should be wary as this means you cannot check the car's ownership and identity details. It may be better to delay the purchase until the V5C has been returned.

If the seller claims the car was bought recently and the V5 is with the DVLA for the change of ownership to be recorded, the seller should have a green slip. This applies only to cars issued with V5s from March 1997.

Checking the identifying numbers on the car

Carefully check that the identifying numbers on the car match those on the V5C. These are:

  • the number plate, called the vehicle registration mark
  • the vehicle identification number (VIN) found on a metal plate, usually in the engine compartment, and stamped into the bodywork under the bonnet and the driver's seat. Some cars have the VIN etched on their windows or lamps
  • the engine number.

If the numbers don’t match, it is likely that the car is stolen and you should walk away. If the seller is a dealer, you should report them to Trading Standards through the Citizens Advice consumer helpline. If the seller is a private seller, you should inform the police.

How to check whether a car is owned by a credit company

You can check whether car is clear of any outstanding finance deals by getting a history check. If you are buying from a dealer, ask whether this check has already been carried out.

A car that has been bought on hire purchase or conditional sale belongs to the finance company until the payments have been completed. If you buy a car that is still subject to a hire purchase agreement, the lender could take it from you. You would not be guaranteed to get your money back or any compensation.

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