Having the wrong VIN number on your car’s title might seem like it couldn’t happen—but it does, sometimes. When you buy a car, you assume that the VIN on the car matches the title. Most people don’t even compare the two. But when it’s time to sell your car as a private party, you will probably compare the number on the vehicle to that on the title. As the buyer of the car, you don’t want to get into this problem at all. Whether you’re the buyer or the seller, you need to know how to handle a wrong VIN number on your car's title and protect yourself.
Here's what to consider so you can get the issue corrected and make sure everything about your vehicle matches and is accurate. It's best to catch the problem with an incorrect or non-matching VIN right away. However, there are also options to correct the problem after the fact. Sometimes, that can be much easier than others. You don't want to ignore issues like a non-matching VIN, so don't be afraid to speak up and ask questions. It can reduce a lot of future problems.
What Is a VIN?
A VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, is very much like your social security number. It's assigned to only one vehicle, and it gives people all the information about the make, model, year, and type of vehicle that goes with that number. It's completely specific to one car, truck, SUV, motorcycle or other method of transportation, and it never changes. Every vehicle that's made gets one of these numbers, and that number stays with the vehicle for the entirety of its life. You cannot take the VIN off the vehicle, alter it or block it with anything, either. Make sure it is always visible and in good shape, so you don't end up in trouble.
Why Does a VIN Matter?
Not everyone worries about a correct VIN, but the Department of Motor Vehicles does. The wrong VIN number on your car's title is a genuine issue. Make sure the VIN on the vehicle and the title match exactly. Even one number or letter different can cause problems because it will appear as though the title belongs to an unfamiliar vehicle. Naturally, that's something you'll want to avoid. Something as simple as a clerical error can cause this discrepancy, but there could also be bigger problems surrounding it. Finding out the cause behind the VIN difference is important, but getting it corrected is the goal.
Handling a VIN Mismatch as a Buyer
If you’re buying a used car and there’s an incorrect VIN on the title, it’s always best to catch the error before the sale goes through and the title is transferred to you.
VIN Errors Before the Sale
If you detect a VIN mismatch before the sale is finalized, it’s a definite red flag. You should pause the proceedings and talk to the seller. It’s possible they made an honest mistake and were not aware of the error.
There is also the remote possibility that the seller is trying to scam you with a stolen vehicle. Either way, it is the seller’s responsibility to remedy the problem before the sale goes through. If you’re feeling generous—and if you’re convinced that it’s an honest mistake—you can give them some time to try to straighten things out.
VIN Errors After the Sale
If you’re doing a registration renewal on a recently-purchased vehicle and realize that the VIN on the title does not match the VIN on the vehicle, you’ve got a problem on your hands.
Whether you’ve purchased your car from a private party on Craigslist, from a dealership, or from your neighbor, you need to contact them and ask them to help you remedy the situation. (You can also contact local law enforcement to check whether your car has been reported stolen.)
For New Cars, Talk to the Dealership
If you've just bought a brand new car and you discover the wrong VIN number on title, contacting the dealership is the right first step. They may re-do the paperwork and have a corrected title application sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles, fixing the problem quickly and easily.
By going back to the dealership where you bought the vehicle and working with them directly, you'll be much more likely to get things fixed. Don't just assume that there's a way around the issue, or that you can give places like your insurance company a VIN that isn't correct. You could also experience big problems with this issue during the registration process, or when you try to sell the car at a later date.
What About a Private Sale Car?
If you've purchased a used car and then realized the car’s VIN and title don’t match, correcting the issue might be more difficult. Working with the person you bought the car from might help you get the issue corrected. That assumes that it's an honest mistake, of course. If the seller is trying to scam you and has a stolen car, they will not answer your phone calls or try to help you correct the title issue.
If the seller is workable and willing to help, there’s a better chance that the two of you can get to the bottom of the issue and get a replacement title issued with the correct VIN.
If the seller is unwilling to cooperate, you might want to talk to law enforcement, an attorney, or both to see what your options are in your state. You should also talk to your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to find out if they know of any remedies.
The Department of Motor Vehicles can report the vehicle and the seller if it's a stolen car, hoping they will catch the person. Will you get your money back, though? Probably not. In most cases, buyers scammed in this way don't have a lot of recourse.
Buying a stolen car, even unintentionally, can mean that you're out the money you paid. If the car is legal and the seller is unwilling or unable to help you solve the problem, though, you may still get the issue corrected by working with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV can help track down where and when the original issue with the title occurred and how to get it fixed.
Handling a VIN Mismatch as a Seller
As the registered owner of a car, you’re responsible for the VIN’s accuracy between the dashboard of the car, and its title. But what if you never caught the error and now it’s time to transfer the title to a new buyer?
Ask for Time
Tell the buyer that you just realized an error and ask them to give you some time to correct it. They will appreciate your honesty, which will help reassure them that you’re not trying to scam them with a stolen vehicle or some other swindle.
Talk to the Dealership
If you’re the car’s first owner, you probably purchased it from a dealership. They probably made a transcription error. Talk to the dealer and see if they can help you get to the bottom of the issue and get it fixed.
If you’re not the first owner, you may have bought your car in a private sale. See if you can track down the person you bought it from to ask them about the incorrect VIN on the title. They may be able to connect you with the dealer they purchased the car from.
Talk to your State DMV
Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) may be able to offer advice about VIN corrections, or help you find resources to get the correct VIN on your title.
How do VIN Errors Happen?
When conducting VIN checks, hopefully the VIN on the vehicle matches the VIN on the car's dashboard. If that's not the case, there could be two reasons for the inconsistency.
- Someone made a simple mistake, such as a transcription mistake.
- Someone is trying to get away with something, such as selling a stolen vehicle, or selling salvage vehicles as clean title vehicles.
In a used car private sale, an incorrect VIN does not always mean criminal intent. It’s possible there was an error made on the title in the past and the previous owner never corrected it. Finding that out before proceeding is vital to a secure transaction.
A VIN transcription mistake is actually fairly common. While manufacturers and dealers catch most of these kinds of errors before they issue the title, some errors slip past and end up causing a problem for the vehicle's buyer. Clerical errors can include things like typing O instead of 0 or N instead of M. A VIN sequence is a long line of numbers and letters, and making a simple mistake somewhere in that line can happen. Double-checking everything on the paperwork when purchasing a vehicle can help reduce the issues that come along with VIN problems and clerical errors. Correcting an issue right away reduces future problems.
Less common is the possibility that someone is pulling a scam. New car dealerships will not do this, but what about when you buy a used car from a stranger? If you don't carefully check the car's VIN and make sure it matches the VIN on the title, you could end up with a vehicle that isn't actually what the title represents it to be.
Sometimes this is a stolen car, and that's why the VIN on the title doesn't match the VIN on the dashboard. Other scammers try to pass off salvage vehicles as having a clean title, and altering the VIN is one of the ways they try to cover their tracks. Regardless of the intent behind the cover-up, you need to protect yourself as best you can.
Try an Online VIN Decoder
Whether you’re a seller or buyer, if you find out that the VIN on your car doesn’t match the title, an online VIN decoder may help you discover what’s amiss. A VIN decoder is a piece of online software that allows you to search a specific vehicle’s VIN, and it tells you what specific info should be encoded in different parts of the VIN sequence.
There are a number of online VIN decoders, both free and paid. You need to find one that decodes your car’s make, model, and year—and then plug in your vin and see what the decoder tells you.
As Justin Dake reports on dirtlegal.com, a 1979 Corvette’s VIN had a B where the VIN decoder specified a number, which happened to be 8. Because Justin bought his Corvette in the State of Missouri, he was able to remedy the mismatch at the DMV.
I happened to know that the state of Missouri will fix a one-digit VIN correction on a car title (your state may be different), so fixing the problem simply involved going to the DMV and speaking to an agent. I provided a photo of the car’s VIN plate, a screenshot of the VIN decoder, and the title itself. They charged me a small fee and corrected the error during the usual registration process. I soon received a corrected title in my name with no added delay. Easy-peasy.
Working with an online VIN decoder may help you resolve the puzzle of your vehicle’s mismatching VIN. And, if your state allows for one-digit VIN corrections, you might just be in luck working with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to remedy the issue.
Buying Safely Can Reduce VIN Problems
The best way to reduce the risk of a wrong VIN number on the car's title is to make sure it's right from the very beginning. If a VIN doesn’t match, you want to discover that before you become the car’s next owner. One way to do that is to purchase a vehicle safely and securely.
If you're going to buy from a private seller, take a careful look at the VIN on the car and the title before making the purchase. Check out anything that seems suspicious. If the VIN on the car matches the VIN on the title, you're in a better position to have a safe and quality transaction.
But if something doesn't match or you have concerns, it's important to sort out those kinds of things before you make a purchase. That will reduce your chances of experiencing problems with your vehicle's VIN and help you have more peace of mind.
Choose PrivateAuto for Your Next Car Transaction
Choose PrivateAuto for Your Next Car Transaction
When you choose PrivateAuto for your next vehicle purchase, you can make sure you're getting a quality vehicle that matches the VIN on the title.
You can schedule a test drive, easily respond to buyers, and make the purchase through electronic signatures for safety and security. Sellers of vehicles can also make sure they handle their transaction securely and protect their personal information when they sell with PrivateAuto.
The PrivateAuto sales process consists of a few simple steps:
- Gather necessary documentation
You’ll need your vehicle title and other required paperwork. Have it handy, so you’re not scrambling to find it at the moment of completing a sale.
2. Register on PrivateAuto and get verified
To make PrivateAuto a safe place for everyone, we require email, phone, and driver’s license verification, including facial recognition. Get started here.
3. List your car / browse car listings
Easily create your PrivateAuto listing with our step-by-step guide. Bonus: we include a window brochure with a QR code scannable to your listing. Buyers can browse available vehicles for sale.
4. Set your terms
It’s your car, so you drive the deal! You can control where, when, and who you meet. Decide whether to accept only ID-verified buyers, or buyers with verified funds. Don’t waste your time with buyers who aren’t verified to your preference.
5. Vet incoming offers / make offers
Manage offers in one place with the ability to accept, reject, or counter offers within the app. Listing on multiple sites? Filter all communications through PrivateAuto by sharing your listing link on all platforms. Your personal info is protected: no more giving out your phone number or email address. All communication happens in our app.
6. Choose a buyer / choose a car
When you find an offer you like, accept it and proceed to the next step with that buyer. Buyers can make offers on vehicles until a seller accepts and they proceed to the next step.
7. Schedule a test drive
Buyer and seller can schedule a test drive via the PrivateAuto app messaging and scheduling system. No more back and forth texts. You never have to give out your phone number. Rather, use our handy scheduling feature to coordinate a time and place for meeting. (Oh, and you’ll be able to finalize the transaction instantly at the first meeting, FYI.)
8. E-sign documents
After the buyer is satisfied with a car and the two of you have agreed on a purchase price, you can each easily e-sign the Bill of Sale within our app, from your phone. With our shared documents feature, you can easily locate the paperwork needed after the sale.
9. Instantaneous payment
Before PrivateAuto, receiving funds was the most stressful part of the entire selling process, especially for any used car sale over $5,000. There just aren’t a lot of good ways to move large amounts of money quickly and conveniently. Those days are over! Verify, send, and receive funds instantaneously with PrivateAuto Pay, our innovative banking integration. Guaranteed funds for transactions large and small.
10. Transfer title
The seller will fill out the necessary information on the back of the title transfer document.