CLEVELAND - More vehicles were recalled in 2010 than any other year according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA. There's a system to recall the cars, but no system to make sure the hazard is fixed. Our hidden camera investigation found holes in cars, and a hole in the system, meant to keep you safe on the road.
The issues are so serious, the car may spontaneously catch fire or the suspension may snap in half.
"It's a safety factor people could get hurt or seriously killed," consumer Kevin Raines said.
We found dozens of recalled cars being sold at Northeast Ohio used car lots. The sale of these cars leaves consumers in a potentially deadly situation, but there's nothing illegal about it.
"I think if there's a recall it shouldn't even be there," Raines explained.
Car lots selling recalled cars
When Kevin Raines saw a used Isuzu Rodeo for sale, he bought it. The price was right, the miles were low, and the condition appeared flawless.
After buying the SUV, Raines took it to his mechanic so he knew what repairs would be needed in the future. He saw it as a way to help him budget.
That's when his mechanic told him about a potentially fatal flaw hiding underneath the Rodeo.
"To buy a car that was not safe to be on the road I was not happy," Raines explained.
The rear suspension is so corroded it's un-driveable and un-repairable. Isuzu recalled the Rodeo over concerns the suspension could snap and cause a crash.
"I've been without a car for over a month now," Raines said.
Raines never even got a chance to remove the temp tags, and he's not alone. Ganley Lincoln of Bedford is handling the recall for Isuzu, and we found two cars with temp tags on the lot.
Service Manager Bill Opalich believes consumers need to take some of the responsibility.
"It's your money. You're spending it. You're the one who is going to go through the one month of getting it bought back or getting the recall done," Opalich said.
Hidden camera investigation
New cars can't be sold until a recall is fixed, but there's no law for used cars.
We took our hidden cameras to a used car lot and asked about a Ford Expedition. It was one of 20 recalled cars for sale. Finding that information was as easy as looking at the free Carfax report on the used car lot's website. The report is used as a selling point.
The salesman said, "No accident damage reported to Carfax, and then you see the history right here," the salesman said pointing to the Carfax history report. "Right there, there's no history," he continued.
The salesman never pointed out the recall history clearly visible on the front of the Carfax report. Under the law, the salesman did nothing wrong.
We went back to the same used car lot a second time. This time the salesman pointed out the recall and told us to call Ford to get it fixed.
"I don't think it would be a big thing to be worried about to be honest with you," the salesman told our consumer.
According to NHTSA, every recall is a safety issue. The recall on the Expedition was a fire hazard and part of a several year recall for Ford.
Over several years, Ford recalled vehicles with faulty speed control switches that could catch fire. The Expedition we asked about was recalled in 2005, and six years later it still wasn't fixed, according to Ford and Carfax.
Finding a recall
To find a recall, check the paper trail. First, get the vehicle identification number or VIN for the vehicle you're interested in buying. Most VIN's are online next to the description of the car.
Many car manufacturers make it easy to check a VIN. Ford / Lincoln / Mercury , Honda , Jeep , Chrysler , and Toyota allow you to run a VIN for free on their website without a username or password. Some manufacturers require you log into the system to access this feature.
You can also call a local dealership and ask them to run the VIN. You're a potential customer, and most dealerships will run the VIN for you. If you don't get anywhere locally, call the manufacturer's headquarters and ask them to run the VIN.
You can also get a Carfax recall report. The company offers free recall checks, but you have to pay for a more comprehensive report like accident damage.
Sometimes you can get the full report on the car lot's website. If it's not free, ask the dealership to supply one. If they won't pay for it, look for other ways to get the report or buy one.
While Carfax reports provide a lot of information, don't rely on it. The report should be used as a starting point for your research. The report is only as good as the information feeding it.
During our investigation, we found a problem with Honda's data that feeds Carfax. We found this problem because we ran VIN numbers in multiple databases and asked a lot of questions.
Honda says it's fixing the problem, but it shows you why you you can't rely soley on the paper trail.
Finally, have a mechanic inspect your car. They can find things that you won't. The cost is
less than $100, and some repair shops and dealerships say they don't charge loyal customers a dime to inspect a car.
To verify our paper trail, we asked Certified Master Mechanic Andy Fiffick to visit used car lots with us. As the General Manager of Rad Air Complete Car Care , Fiffick is familiar with used car repairs.
"We constantly see vehicles that are unsafe on the road," Fiffick said.
We asked Fiffick to look for the faulty cruise control switch on Ford trucks. Three out of four Ford trucks on one lot had the faulty cruise control switch that can catch fire. It was recalled on the trucks in 2005, and still not fixed.
Government investigation into the recall process
"This is an accident waiting to happen," Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director for The Center for Auto Safety said.
"We've been working on this for years. There are many ways we can solve this problem but no-one to date has done it," Ditlow said.
Changes are in the works according to a June report from the Government Accountability Office or GAO.
NHTSA bought software to create a centralized database allowing consumers to search for a recall by VIN number, but NHTSA says it needs significantly more resources to implement it.
Currently, consumers can search for recalls, safety complaints, and investigations on NHTSA's website, Safercar.gov . However, the search engine only allows you to search by your car's make, model, year, and component. The data is not specific to VIN number, and recalls are best searched by VIN. Sometimes a recall doesn't cover every VIN in a certain make and model year.
For the GAO investigation, focus groups were conducted. The GAO report found "none of the almost 90 participants said they were familiar with www.safercar.gov and more noted that they use Google when they search for information related to safety defects."
For the report, the GAO talked with used and franchised car dealerships. Those car lots told the GAO a searchable database for recalls by VIN would be helpful.
Until the database becomes reality, "It's really buyer beware," Ditlow said.
A lesson Raines learned the hard way.
"Next time, I'm definitely going to have it inspected before I say yes or no on the deal."
We tried to talk to two of the car dealers we visited but our calls were not returned. After our calls, Raines worked out a deal on a second car with the dealership where he bought the first recalled vehicle.