Mere possession of a car does not establish legal ownership. To legally own a car, the owner must also have the title properly assigned. When a consumer buys a new car at a dealership, the dealer usually completes the steps for title registration as a service and charges a fee for it. If purchasing a used car from a private party, the owner must comply with the directives found on the website of the Washington State Department of Licensing. After this is done, the new owner will receive a new title from the state registered accordingly.

Many scams exist in which an unwitting victim purchases a car that is not able to be registered and legally driven on public roads or has a title that is not what it appears. Car title scammers dupe buyers into purchasing cars which the sellers, themselves, do not legally own and therefore cannot sell, or which, by legal classification, are worth significantly less than they appear.

A vehicle title should be considered every bit as important as the keys; the car is useless without it.

Illegal sale by improper owner

Just as a proper title is needed by the end user to legally own a car, it is required by the seller to legally sell the vehicle. An entity that does not legally own a car cannot legally sell it, thereby transferring ownership interest, unless acting as an agent for the proper owner.

Many consumers are not cognizant of this and assume the dealership selling the car is doing so legally. The sales and management staff will make promises that the title will be sent at some time in the future, citing bogus processes that have caused the delay. Often, they will offer consolation in the form of a discount on the vehicle to overcome objections on the part of the buyer and allow greed to replace common sense. Private sales might raise more suspicion, but similar persuasive techniques and false stories replace proper titles that should be available and handed over along with the vehicle, itself, at the time of the purchase.

These cars might have been illegally sold to the sellers, themselves, without proper title. Some are still legally owned by lienholders that financed a previous purchase and some might have been re-financed by car title loan companies. In either case, the holder of the title legally owns the vehicle, but by agreement, allowed the party who illegally sold the vehicle to retain possession and use of it.

Title Washing Scam

Cars that have been severely damaged either by a collision or by flood water might be considered a total loss by the company insuring the vehicle. The term, “total” is somewhat misleading because when this happens, the car is sold off as a salvage vehicle, meaning that it is sold for a very low price and used for any parts that are still usable, such as windows that have not been broken, body panels that are usable, or other components that still provide integrity and usability when installed into another car of the same make, model, and year. Cars of this type are retitled as “salvage” vehicles, and the title reflects this status. While Washington recognizes salvage vehicles and requires the titles to be branded accordingly, not all states do, and some allow the vehicle to be retitled without the salvage brand on the title, warning the buyer.

Not all cars that are “totaled” by insurance companies are wrecked beyond repair. While many of these cars can be refurbished and driven again, the reliability, roadworthiness, and value are severely diminished, and accordingly, the buyer is entitled to know this.

When a totaled vehicle is sold to a seller in a state that does not recognize and reflect the salvage status on the title, the title is said to have been “washed,” meaning that the salvage brand has been removed by the process, and unscrupulous dealers sell these cars to unsuspecting buyers.

Counterfeit titles

The name of the scam is self-explanatory. Real titles should have watermarks and an official seal stamped onto it creating a raised seal on the paper that can be seen and felt. If in doubt as to the authenticity of a title, refer to a local sheriff.

Get legal help to protect against prosecution

Purchasing or selling a car can be a thrilling process, but when titles issues reveal themselves to the purchaser, the thrill goes away quickly. If you or a loved one has been involved in the sale of a vehicle with an improper title, whether by a purchaser or accused fraudulent seller, contact the criminal defense attorneys at the Nahajski Firm, in the Puget Sound Area, at (206) 621-0500 for a free and confidential initial consultation.