The Legal Business of 'Title Washing'

By Marsha Thompson
marsha@wlbt.net

This week we've revealed troubling news about hurricane-damaged cars that could be in the marketplace. Now WLBT News has uncovered a little-known Mississippi law that allows 'title washing' -- a way to legally conceal wrecked and rebuilt vehicles.

For most folks, a car is a big purchase. But what you see is not always what you get.

Doug Wilson of Wilson Auto Group says it fosters fraud on consumers. "And legitimate dealers are victimized by it as well," he says.

This Jackson car dealer is talking about the business of falsifying titles. "We shouldn't have a situation where Mississippi is a dumping ground for vehicles that allows titles to be washed," Wilson said.

The Attorney General's office agrees, according to the director of the Consumer Protection Division, Grant Hedgepeth. "We need to protect these people from it," he says.

Damaged vehicles can be concealed from buyers -- legally -- through the State Tax Commission. Salvaged titles can be wiped clean, and few would know they were purchasing a wrecked car.

Our investigation found out how simple it is. All it takes is 75 dollars and a quick inspection at the Highway Patrol to wipe "wrecked" off a car's record, leaving buyers in the dark. MHP inspection offices are set up statewide. You fill out the paperwork, and then a Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent gives the refurbished car a once-over. But MBI agents are not mechanics checking the vehicle's integrity or safety, according to the new head of the MBI, Lt. Colonel David Shaw.

"We are in the inspection process primarily," he says, "to help ensure stolen parts aren't used in the rebuilding process."

We requested inspection records and found in the past two years nearly 17,000 titles were changed.

"Under current law an unscrupulous dealer fixes it up and sells it as a used car that's never been wrecked," Hedgepeth says.

Concealing repairs through "title washing" is a booming business in Mississippi. Our sources say a powerful lobby of northeast Mississippi rebuilders resist change.

"I believe that's were the money comes from," says Hedgepeth.

So do people in the automobile industry. Don Travis is director of the Mississippi Independent Auto Dealers Association. "We're talking about money," he says. "A clear title is much more valuable than a salvage car title."

"This should have been corrected years ago."

Who's responsible for allowing this deceptive practice to continue? Your lawmakers -- and the buck stops at the State Capitol.

Auto industry officials say title washing has gone on for years despite attempts to convince legislators to change the law. Travis says it should have been corrected years ago, as does Hedgepeth. But each time a bill has been submitted to the legislature, it has died in committee.

The Department of Public Safety, the Attorney General's office, consumer groups and the automobile industry in Mississippi support "title branding," a means of indicating on the title that a salvage car has undergone repair work.

In the meantime, consumers are urged to check titles before purchase and get a pre-purchase inspection. You can also use commercial internet sites like www.carfax.com  to track a vehicle's history.