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There’s an old adage that warns when you buy a used car you’re just buying someone else’s problems. Thanks to Vehicle Identification Number (or, VIN) checks, however, you can avoid many of those problems.

The VIN is a unique, 17-digit number assigned to each car that’s used to locate its vehicle history file. This file contains important information that you are unlikely to learn simply by looking at the car. For example, a VIN check can let you know if a car has been damaged in an accident, flood, or fire. You’ll also learn if a car was ever stolen and recovered.

VIN checks will also alert you to any titling issues. “A VIN check is imperative for used car shoppers, as it will let you know if the car has a salvaged or branded title – that is, if the car has been totaled by an insurance company due to extensive damage from an accident, flood, or other event,” said Jamie Page Deaton, executive editor of U.S. News Best Cars.  “Avoiding cars with salvage or branded titles will save consumers some major ownership headaches.”

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[What Is a VIN Number?]

The most-extensive VIN check reports are available through companies that will charge you a fee. You can get limited information for free, however.

VehicleHistory.com provides the most exhaustive free VIN data. Its website has the ability to capture information on a vehicle’s performance, inspections, specs, safety ratings, warranty, and more. If the vehicle goes up for sale, VehicleHistory.com can tell you where, as well as its list price, sale price, and the status of its parts and components.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau provides up to five free VIN checks in a 24-hour period from the same IP address. This report will tell you the vehicle’s current state of title and last title date, brand history, mileage, total loss history, and salvage history. [DM4] Be aware, however, that this federal database can take up to six months to update, and it only records information reported by an insurance company.

VINCheckPro is another website that offers free background information on your car. Enter your VIN into the database, and the website will tell you the car’s age, make, model, engine type, country of origin, and whether a recall has been issued. VINCheckPro will also assign the vehicle a score for safety and environmental friendliness. However, you’ll have to pay for detailed information like title status, accident history, and odometer readings. You can get one report for $9.95.

[Car History Report: Which One Is Right For You?]

“Free VIN checks will get you the major red flags, like a salvaged title,” Deaton said, “but paying for a VIN can get you more details, like how many owners the car has had.” 

The two major players in paid VIN checks are Carfax and AutoCheck. Both provide detailed reports that can include a description and overall evaluation of the vehicle, as well as dates and locations for when it was serviced and sold. It will also tell you if the car has been registered in multiple states by former owners, or recalled, or repurchased by the manufacturer under the lemon law.

U.S. News & World Report Best Cars partners with Carfax, which means you can get a free Carfax report on many of the vehicles available through our listings. Carfax also sells more thorough reports through its website. A single report costs $39.99, and $59.99 gets you a bundle of five.

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AutoCheck reports is owned by Experian. Searching by license plate or VIN, you can learn a vehicle’s make, model, and country of origin. For $24.99 you can get a fuller report that generates a numerical score for the vehicle so you can compare it to others from that same model year. If you plan to do multiple searches, you can pay $49.99 to access 25 reports within 21 days.

As you’re shopping for your next vehicle, remember that you may be able to get a free VIN check simply by asking. Many dealerships have subscriptions to Carfax and similar services that provide vehicle history reports, and your sales associate can obtain the report for you. An independent seller may also be willing to throw in a free report in an effort to close the deal.