Written-off cars are repaired and sold to unwitting buyers, says Motorbody Repairers' Association. Picture: TIMESLIVE
Written-off cars are repaired and sold to unwitting buyers, says Motorbody Repairers' Association. Picture: TIMESLIVE

The South African Motorbody Repairers’ Association (Sambra) has called on the vehicle insurance industry to make its register of written-off vehicles publicly available.

Richard Green, National Director of Sambra, says at present there is no way for a consumer to find out if the secondhand vehicle they are purchasing has been previously written off. “Not only does this have serious legal and cost ramifications, but it talks to the safety of motorists and a growing pool of unroadworthy and perhaps even stolen vehicles on our roads,” he says.

According to Green insurers routinely ‘write off’ vehicles and these vehicles are sold, within a salvage contract, to auction yards. “While there is nothing wrong with this on face value, the problem comes in when these vehicles, still registered as Code 2 (the description for a used car) are sold to any buyer willing to pay the highest price on auction.

“In many cases these vehicles are bought by dubious repairers and sold back into the system for a good profit via digital sales platforms or unsuspecting used car traders. This is where the system goes awfully wrong as the second unsuspecting buyers often ends up with a vehicle that has previously been written off by an insurer, deemed uneconomical to repair. It also has not been reclassified as a code 3 vehicle and the purchaser has no way of checking the history.”

The other problem facing the industry is if the cars are not repaired and sold on, they can be bought by hijacking syndicates.

“Most vehicles stolen by professional thieves have a high value and are never recovered, as they’re either stripped for parts and the bodies dumped or re-birthed under new identities. These written off vehicles provides the perfect foil for this illegal activity.

"The severely damaged vehicles are bought on auction to obtain code 2 registration documents which are then used to re-register stolen vehicles. The vin and engine numbers on the stolen or hijacked vehicle is changed to match the 'written off' vehicles papers and the scrapped licence plates are used on the stolen car. For the unsuspecting buyer it is almost impossible to check the validity of his car papers,” says Green.

Green says it is for these reasons that Sambra has requested the South African Insurance Association (SAIA) to make its Vehicle Salvage Data (VSD) information available in the form of the vin number of the vehicle so that consumers can be properly informed before making a used car purchase decision.

Sambra believes a formal, publicly accessible write-off register will minimise the illegal use of vehicle identifiers in the re-birthing of stolen vehicles and in curtailing stolen vehicle parts being used in the repair of damaged vehicles. It will also help eliminate unsafe vehicles for unsuspecting purchasers. 

“Practically if there is not a market for these cars the practice will have to slow down,” he says.

In response, SAIA says that when a written-off vehicle is sold, the respective code is disclosed to the buyer. In this, the vehicle insurance industry ensures that the relevant stakeholder who buys the salvage vehicle is fully informed of the state of the vehicle being sold.

SAIA says the information enclosed in the VSD system is not generally available to the public as it contains policyholder information, which is held in strict adherence to the Protection of Personal Information Act.

It says the VSD was created to combat crime. If this database was made public, criminals would have access to it which would see a dramatic increase in false financing and insurance of cloned vehicle.

According to TransUnion’s Kriben Reddy, buyers of secondhand vehicles were previously able to use TransUnion’s service to check whether vehicles had been written off, but not any more.

Today consumers can use a vehicle’s vin to establish whether the car is the correct model, whether it still has outstanding finance, its mileage and whether it is listed as stolen.

Reddy says that not being able to check if the vehicle was previously written off is a significant problem as there are many vehicles being cloned, especially in a consumer to consumer environment.

“The current situation is probably not fair to the consumer; they’re not getting the information that they should,” says Reddy.