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FORT MILL, S.C. -- The internet has become a popular place to research and maybe buy a car. At least that s what Crystal Wedra thought.

I bought a lot of things on Craigslist, so I didn t see any issue buying a car, says Crystal who, found the SUV she wanted, a 2003 green Jeep Grand Cherokee. The seller met her at an apartment complex in Charlotte where she looked, paid the $2,500 cash and signed the as-is handwritten paperwork with the understanding the title would be sent along in a few days. But that s when things got worse.

Crystal s used Jeep was owned by someone living here in Louisiana in 2005 and like a lot of cars and trucks, was flooded in Hurricane Katrina. The title she waited for confirmed it at the bottom. It was a water damaged Katrina car, it was reconstructed and didn t display actual mileage.

I felt very ripped off, says Crystal, who admits her purchase was hasty and an all around poor choice. She needed something cheap, and felt taken advantage of when she learned what she bought after the fact. The I-Team did some quick research and learned that any seller in NC and SC must disclose in writing that a car is flood damaged before any money changes hands. Crystal s paperwork says as is with no mention of flood damage.

Tom Bartholomy of the Charlotte Better Business Bureau says of cars like this, We highly recommend that you take it to a mechanic. We see complaints of frames damaged, and frames bent.

The I-Team called around for a few weeks looking for Dwayne, the Craigslist seller, who, when we found him, told us he didn t know the Jeep was flood damaged and said he d make good on a refund.

Weeks later, Dwayne sent a wrecker making good on his offer to come get the Jeep and return Crystal s $2,500.

DMV.org lists the following information when buying a used car.

Always Order a VIN Check

Flood damaged vehicles are supposed to be reported. If the car you're interested in has been officially declared a flood-damaged vehicle, that information should show up when you order an Auto History Report, or also known as a VIN Check or VIN Report.

Be Sure to Look Under the Hood

Warnings against purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle seem as obvious as being told to avoid rubbing the snouts of large, nesting alligators. Yet in the rippling wake of Hurricane Katrina and several major Midwest floods, some unscrupulous car sellers have become shockingly skilled at concealing the damage to these vehicles. New paint and new carpeting is all it takes to abracadabra one of these vehicles into literally looking like a well-oiled machine.

Consequently, unsuspecting buyers learn very quickly there's a heavy dose of truth in the adage, Looks can be deceiving. Within days of driving the vehicle off the lot, they discover they've got themselves a lemon. Or, in a flood-damaged vehicle's case, lemonade.

Water + Engine = Problem

In this age of electrical engines, today's cars are more vulnerable than ever to flooding. It doesn't take much water inside a vehicle to permanently damage the car's electrical components and ultimately, the engine.

Unfortunately, most of us lack the mechanical know-how to recognize engine problems. It's a reality that gives sellers of flood-damaged vehicles the upper hand. For they know that engine problems are easier to conceal than a car's exterior.

What to Look For

Fortunately, you don't have to be a certified mechanic to recognize the prognostic signs of a flood-damaged vehicle. All it takes is heightened awareness and some common sense.

When car shopping, become highly suspicious if you see:

oNew upholstery in a used vehicle. Or upholstery that doesn't match the carpeting.

oRust in high places like door hinges and trunk latches.

oRust under the gas and brake pedals.

oSilt or mud under the seats or in the glove compartment.

oBeads of water in the dome light.

oDamp floor carpeting.

Other preventive measures include:

oSniffing inside the vehicle. A musty or moldy smell indicates trouble.

oBending wires underneath the dashboard. After drying, wet wires become brittle as twigs.

oTurning on the ignition and making sure all dashboard warning and accessory lights properly illuminate.

oTesting the air conditioning, heater, windshield wipers, radio and turn signals several times.

oMaking sure the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the dashboard matches the VIN on the door jamb.

Common sense measures include:

oHaving a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle.

oOrdering an Auto History Report, or also known as a VIN Check or VIN Report.

If You Become Suspicious

Most flood-damaged cars carry low-price tags. Despite this enticement, walk away if you suspect even a hint of chicanery. Otherwise, the money you save on the purchase will quickly go towards costly repairs.
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