How to Check for a Valid Car VIN Number

by Arn GoldmanUpdated July 05, 2023
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A VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is something like a car's social security number; it reveals a used car's entire history, including any accidents or repairs. However, shady car dealers and resellers often alter or tamper with VINs with the hope that buyers won't perform a VIN check. Using a VIN to look up a car's history is a necessary step in making sure you're not misled by the seller and sold a lemon.

Lemon Definition

A lemon is a vehicle that is defective or does not meet the standards of quality expected by the consumer.

Locate the VIN of the car whose history you wish to search. If the person selling the car cannot provide it, you should be able to find it in many locations, including but not limited to the insurance card, on a metal strip on the dashboard, on the driver's side door or on the car's title and registration.

Open any web browser.

Navigate to a VIN look-up page. All of the VIN look-up pages are fairly similar; popular examples include CarFax, and AutoCheck.

Search the page for an entry box where a VIN code can be entered. For cars manufactured since 1981, valid VINs are 17 characters long, and they contain only letters and numbers; cars produced before that date may have slight variations in VIN coding, depending on the car's manufacturer.

Enter the VIN.

Consider the next page. If you get a message indicating that you've incorrectly entered the VIN or that the VIN is invalid, reenter it to ensure you didn't make a typing error. If the message keeps reappearing, you likely have an invalid VIN, meaning that it has been tampered with. If the VIN is valid, you'll receive a message that a VIN report is available.

Enter your credit card information to pay for a report. You should see a page with a message such as "Get Report" or "Get the CarFax." On the following page, enter your credit card information. In 2010, reports typically cost about $20.

Read the VIN report, which will be displayed online. You now have a full history of the used automobile.


The VIN format was standardized in 1981, so success in looking up a VIN is less certain when dealing with cars manufactured before 1981. Consult a local dealer or the manufacturer's website for further details about pre-1981 automobiles.

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