ABC15 News Investigates: The hidden costs of auctioned cars

ABC 15’s Summer Dashe is investigating open recalls on auctioned vehicles Monday, May 22, at 11 p.m. on WPDE ABC 15 News. (WPDE)

Every year government agencies across the country auction off thousands of retired or seized cars and trucks.

Many of them are vehicles police took during investigations. Those are called civil forfeitures.

Others are just part of an agency’s fleet that are being replaced. Those cars and trucks can then be sold at auction for profit for the department.

A good bargain is easy to find at auction, but it could cost you your safety.

It's easy to look up cars for auction in South Carolina. has a whole list of them.

Our team found dozens of cars with open recalls available at auction in the state.

Remember that old saying, "if it's too good to be true it probably is"? It might be worth remembering as you read or watch this story.

The sound of a good deal is hard to resist.

How about a 2009 Dodge Ram for $1,000? What about a 2013 Ford Escape for just as low? Both of those cars are up for auction in South Carolina and both are dangerous to drive.

"The recall goes with the vehicle and not with a particular owner,” said Dominic Starr, an attorney in Myrtle Beach. “So, once they become aware of that recall, they can take it in just like any other owner of one of those vehicles and have that repaired at no cost to them.”

If you've ever owned a car and gotten a recall notice from the federal government, you know you're supposed to get the problem fixed, but when the government owns a car with an unfixed recall, it can ignore it and sell it at auction, handing the keys right over to you or your loved one.

“That’s why they’re sold, generally, at bargain prices, because the government can’t speak to how that vehicle was handled prior to it being seized,” Starr explained. “They can’t speak to whether it was maintained properly. They’re selling as is.”

Starr is the kind of attorney who might represent a manufacturer in a recall case. He said the recall responsibility falls on the manufacturer and sometimes the car dealership, but not the police or government agency that sold it.

“We have laws, product liability laws, that protect private sellers of vehicles among other things, but really of any product. So, if you sell a car that you own, or the state, the police agency, sells vehicles through these seizure sales, they are not in the business of selling cars just like you or I would not be in the business of selling cars,” Starr said.

Auctions are open to the public. In just the last few weeks we found dozens of cars up for auction across the state with dangerous open recalls. Some are small, but a number of them are big.

Several recalls for steering problems could cause a driver to lose control of the car and others, for airbags, could send metal fragments flying if the airbag is deployed.

Remember that 2009 Dodge Ram? It has a front passenger airbag inflator that could rupture, sending metal fragments shooting into the occupant.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that could result in “serious injury or death.”

The 2013 Ford Escape that is up for auction in South Carolina has an issue with the door latch. According to the recall, it could cause the door to open while driving, “increasing the risk of injury.”

“More regulation on it would place potential liabilities on the police agency and then ultimately could be transferred to private sellers like you and me who sell our used car before we go to buy a new one for things that we can’t really be expected to know might happen with respect to one of those cars,” Starr explained.

Under current law, this is all legal. Government agencies, or even you or I, can sell a used vehicle with an open recall without specific disclosure.

“The motto has always been, you know, 'buyer beware,'” Starr said.

Rather, buyers should beware of the hidden cost of what sounds like a good deal.

Just like it was easy it was to look up cars for auction, it's easy to see if those cars have open recalls.

You'll need the cars VIN number, which is shown on the listing on

Take that VIN number and type it in to

Any unfixed recalls will show up there.

If you do your homework before you buy, you could be in for a more positive vehicle report card later on.

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