Today’s scams come in all shapes and sizes. What might seem like an innocent mistake on a car title could easily be a felony in disguise. I wish that were a Buzzfeed-y scare tactic to grab your attention, but it’s unfortunately 100% true.
You may have heard stories about someone selling a car that wasn’t titled in their name. You may have encountered a title the seller didn’t sign (an “open title”). Or perhaps you’ve considered leaving a title blank to avoid paying taxes and fees on that car. These things happen all the time and they involve a felonious fraud tactic known as title jumping.
Title Jumping FAQ
What is title jumping?
Title jumping is the act of neglecting to properly assign a vehicle’s title. It’s the process of willingly transferring an open title, one that’s not signed or dated by a buyer. Also known as floating or skipping, title jumping is an illegal action – a felony in some states – and could cause problems for you and any subsequent or previous owners of the car.
Why would someone jump a title?
Title jumping is a common tactic to avoid paying taxes and fees on a vehicle. It also prevents a paper trail of ownership, allowing a dishonest seller to disappear without a trace.
Once a dealer sells a certain number of cars per year, they need additional licensure. Shady dealerships use title jumping to skirt the legal requirement of reporting every car they sell. By never legally owning their vehicles, dealers can dodge the law while avoiding substantial fees and taxes – and risking everything to do so.
When a car’s title is branded with a status like salvage or flood, that isn’t reflected on the printed title until the next time it’s transferred. That means a seller could pass a salvage vehicle off as clean by way of an open title.
Of course, that’s not the only problem caused by open titles.
How do I avoid this?
If you buy or sell a car without signing the title, you’re committing title jumping. As a seller, you should never sell a vehicle which isn’t titled in your name. We’ll talk about title jumping from a buyer’s perspective in a moment.
Why should I care?
In addition to being classified as a felony in some states (and a crime in every state), title jumping causes serious problems for everyone involved. Let’s look at some real-world examples of that.
Fake Names, Real Stories
Title jumping causes all kinds of problems for all kinds of people. In each of these examples, someone has committed fraud in the form of title jumping – whether they meant to or not.
Michael the Macho
Known for their glitzy signs and annoying commercials, Joe Bob’s Auto Sales routinely “forgets” to title their used cars in their name. When Michael shows interest in a lifted Tacoma, the salesperson explains: “It would take weeks to get a proper title for that truck. There’s nothing wrong with doing it this way. Saves us money, saves you money. There’s a line of bad dudes waiting for this Tacoma, Mike, are you in or out?”
What’s wrong with that? A week later that beautiful Taco is wrapped around a telephone pole. A tie rod failed during a rainstorm, sending the truck into a tailspin. An injured Michael soon realizes the dealership never did an inspection on that truck; if they had, they would’ve caught the failing tie rod. Michael pursues the dealership for negligence, but there’s no record of that truck ever being titled in their name! That legal battle just got a lot longer.
Ryan the Hoon
The Germans sure know how to make a fast car, and Ryan has come to embrace that. He runs red lights, he skips out on tolls, he blows past speed cameras while flipping the bird. Life in the fast lane.
What’s wrong with that? Ryan never titled his BMW. Since none of those citations involved his driver’s license, the last owner, Robert, has been the one getting all the tickets. Except Robert recently moved to Florida and his old address is no longer valid – so he has no idea. Upon being pulled over for not using his blinker, Robert learns his license has accrued so many points it’s been suspended. A freshly arrested Robert now contemplates the daunting legal battle ahead, and what he might do to Ryan if only he had the chance.
Jim the Mechanic
Jim just bought a project car on Craigslist. It’s an easy fix, and once it’s done he plans to sell it for a big profit. Since Jim won’t own the car for very long he sees no reason for paying to title the car in his name. He soon sells the car to Kevin who is thrilled with the finished product.
What’s wrong with that? Though the usual titling window is 30 days, it often takes people much longer than that. People forget things all the time. When Kevin eventually does title the car, he finds a surprise: Jim had a lien on it. Suddenly Jim is nowhere to be found – doesn’t answer calls, he’s never home – and Kevin is stuck fighting a costly legal battle to remove the lien from his car.
Pam the Busy Mom
Her new Honda Odyssey does everything from taking the kids to soccer practice to bringing home furniture from Ikea, but in all the hustle and bustle of family life Pam forgot to title the van in her name. Years later Pam goes to sell the van to Creed.
What’s wrong with that? Creed doesn’t know much about titles, so when Pam explains why it has an open title he’s completely unphased. That is, until he goes to title the van and encounters over $1000 in back taxes that must be paid in full before the title is assigned. Pam apologizes and says she can’t produce that kind of cash, so Creed pays it himself. Lesson learned.
Dwight the Pizza Boy
There’s no better way to deliver pizzas than with a quick, roomy, economical Honda Civic. Dwight just scored a high-mileage example for pocket change. He puts it straight to work delivering hot pies. The previous owner left the title open to avoid paying the taxes, and so did Dwight – but he got a bill of sale from the actual seller, just in case he ever needs a paper trail.
What’s wrong with that? That same night an officer pulls Dwight over because the Civic has a license plate light out. That’s an easy thing to miss during a purchase, so Dwight explains that he just bought the car. To prove it he hands over the title and the bill of sale. But wait, those names don’t match! And the title hasn’t been signed, dated, or written on at all! Dwight just got nailed by the long arm of the law.
How to Protect Yourself from Title Jumping
As a buyer, there are a few things you should always do to protect yourself from scammers and schemes.
Be aware. Never buy a vehicle with an open title. Ask the seller for at least one form of ID and compare that name to the name on the title. If they don’t match, ask why.
Be diligent. Don’t believe the seller’s story as to why the title isn’t in their name. Run a VIN check to ensure you’re not buying a stolen car, a salvage car, or one with a lien.
Be empowered. Remember that you can always walk away from a deal. Unless you’re buying an extremely rare vehicle, chances are another deal will come along – a safer bet all around.
Title Gods Can Help
We’re a small group of title specialists dedicated to combating title fraud. We offer an easy $10 Vin Check to help you buy with confidence. This VIN check will reveal red-flag items like liens or theft reports. Buy one now or bookmark it for later:
Our specialty is title recovery and we’re well-versed in all manner of title issues. If you encountered a weird situation and need to ask someone about it, or if you have questions about title jumping or any other title topic, have us call you for a no-obligation chat.