After remnants of Hurricane Gaston hit Richmond, Michael Wright's 1999 Honda CR-V sat under water just blocks from his office for three days before a towing company hauled it away.
Then an insurance claims agent declared the small sport-utility vehicle a total loss. Wright handed the title over to the insurance company, which in turn took possession of the CR-V and wrote him a $9,000 check. Last he heard, his Honda was in a warehouse near Chesapeake, Va.
"I don't know what they do with the cars there," said Wright, creative arts director at a Richmond advertising firm. "Do they clean them out? Salvage the parts? Where will my car go?"
Most likely, Wright's vehicle and tens of thousands of others damaged or totaled by recent hurricanes and floods will be auctioned off by firms that specialize in selling salvaged automobiles. Within the next few months, some of those vehicles -- from as far away as Florida and as close as Richmond -- should trickle into the Washington market and onto area roads.
Consumers are attracted to "flood cars" because once water damage is disclosed, a vehicle's value drops by at least half, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst at Edmunds.com, an online automotive resource for consumers.
"Some vehicles do have use left in them," Toprak said. "Perhaps it's better for everyone and the economy to make use of them somehow and not just discard them."
But problems arise when consumers do not realize they are driving a water-damaged vehicle either because of lax state disclosure laws or because scam artists tampered with the paperwork.
The District, Maryland and Virginia require that damage to a car be noted in the title, but the threshold for reporting damage varies from state to state, and crooks learn to take advantage of the differences. Weeks or months after a purchase, unsuspecting motorists could end up with electrical problems ranging from faulty cruise controls to malfunctioning air bags.
At the very least, consumers who are considering purchasing a used vehicle should take it to a mechanic and pay for a search of the car's history through services such as those offered by Carfax Inc. and Experian Information Solutions Inc.'s AutoCheck, said John B. Creel Jr., an investigator with the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs.
"Some less than honest people who get their hands on these cars pump the water out of the trunk, put on a shiny coat of paint, shampoo the carpets, and off they go," Creel said. "I would venture to guess that thousands of flood-damaged cars will end up in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia."
It's hard to know exactly how many. But about half of the vehicles damaged by Hurricane Floyd's floods in 1999 ended up back on the nation's highways, according to Carfax, which sells data on the history of used cars. The tally should be even higher this season given that four hurricanes made landfall in the past two months alone, Carfax predicts.
Some automakers try to minimize problems by pulling flood-damaged cars out of the commercial stream. In the past two months, Ford Motor Co. cleared 1,400 new vehicles damaged by wind and water off of dealership lots, said Daniel Jarvis, a company spokesman. Ford plans to recycle parts from some of those autos, use others for certain in-house tests, and donate some to the movie industry for crash scenes.
But automakers have no control over any vehicles they do not directly own or insure. Dealers can dispose of those automobiles as they see fit and often sell them at salvage auctions. Insurance companies, which reported 33,700 auto claims from last month's Hurricane Charley, typically do the same thing to recoup losses.
"At that point, legal ownership is transferred, so the auto insurer or automaker no longer has control over what happens to that vehicle," said Robert P. Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, an insurance trade association.
A. Jayson Adair, president of Copart Inc., one of the nation's better-known online salvage auction companies, said 3,000 to 5,000 damaged vehicles have arrived at his Florida yards since hurricanes Charley and Frances pummeled the area.
Potential buyers for those vehicles include people who want to dismantle them and sell their parts -- everything from the tires to the fluff in the upholstery -- and people who want to rebuild them and sell them directly to consumers. Adair said about 20 percent of the vehicles Copart auctions off end up overseas.
Copart, based in Fairfield, Calif., provides properly branded titles to anyone who purchases automobiles from its auctions, Adair said. And he describes flood car scams as a rarity. Still, "it all depends on who you are buying from and how reputable they are," Adair said.
But even if a reputable wholesaler or dealer discloses a vehicle's history, less reputable people who buy it a few steps down the chain can hide that history. The riskiest transactions are those between individuals, which account for nearly one out of every three automobile purchases, according to Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles.
Scam artists or "curbstoners" who pose as private sellers can buy cars at rock-bottom prices and alter the title by erasing or bleaching it. They make superficial fixes and sell vehicles for significantly more than they paid for them but at attractive prices for the consumer, said Larry Gamache, a Carfax spokesman.
These crooks also are adept at taking advantage of differences in state laws. Scam artists often title a car in states that do not have strict disclosure laws and move them into other regions. Different states also have different thresholds at which damage must be disclosed. So curbstoners often re-register cars to get clean titles.
But these private sales are not without risk to the seller in some cases. For instance, Virginia law requires motorists to notify the DMV if their vehicle sustains more than $1,000 in water damage, even if the motorist does not plan to drive it.
"If a water-damaged vehicle is resold, and is later involved in a crash, the person you sold the vehicle to could sue you if the water damage was not reported to DMV and contributed to the crash," DMV Commissioner Demerst B. "D.B." Smit said in a recent statement.
Wright, whose CR-V was flooded in Richmond, immediately reported the damage. He's now riding his bicycle to work and shopping around for another car, most likely a used one.
"But then again," Wright said, "I guess I could end up buying my Honda again if I'm not careful."
Staff writer Annys Shin contributed to this report.