Nearly 20 percent of the consumer complaints fielded by the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs from Jan. 1 through June 30 were related to vehicles. The most common complaints were in reference to used cars, repairs and credit sales.

The Consumer Federation of America’s 2016 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, which includes data from 39 agencies in 23 states, also lists vehicles as the national top complaint category in 2016.

Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse. And Hurricane Harvey is to blame.

Scenes of submerged vehicles by the hundreds have been shown in photos and across TV screens worldwide. And early estimates, according to a report by USA Today, are that Harvey and its flooding likely destroyed more vehicles than any other natural disaster in U.S. history.

The storm may have ruined up to a million vehicles along the Texas Gulf Coast, the newspaper reported, citing data firm Black Book.

Harvey destroyed about 300,000 to 500,000 vehicles owned by individuals, Cox Automotive chief economist Jonathan Smoke estimates. Insurance is expected to cover a large portion of the losses.

As reported by USA Today, Smoke's projections were based on Houston-area storm damage and vehicle ownership, compared with scrappage rates and insurance claims following Superstorm Sandy in the New York region in 2012 and Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area in 2005.

The catch in this is that “destroyed” may not mean the vehicles are headed for the junkyard.

Unfortunately, there are people willing to get these vehicles, do what it takes to get them operating, take them to other states and sell them without the purchaser knowing the story of the “good deal.”

Up to half of the cars damaged by flooding are forecast to be cleaned up and moved around the county with no notation of flood damage, even though dealers must disclose in writing if a vehicle has been branded. A brand is a descriptive label assigned to a vehicle that appears on that vehicle’s title. This identifies the vehicle’s current or prior condition, such as junk, salvage or flood.

So, can you spot a flood-damaged car?

According to a report by Scripps Media, flood damage affects the mechanical, electrical and safety systems of the vehicle. Carfax says telltale signs of a flood vehicle include:

• Upholstery does not match carpet.

• Rust on door hinges.

• Seat belts or inside bolts damaged.

• Musty odor.

• Water lines in engine or trunk.

Carfax provides a free flood check report – but there is the real possibility many of the cars from Harvey will not be branded as flooded. In that case, a buyer is on his own.

Which leads to the conclusion that applies whether the car is potentially flood damaged or not: Have an expert check out a used vehicle before you buy.

As the Scripps report states: “An inspection could mean the difference between winding up with hunk of junk and a dependable used car.”

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To file a complaint or get information on consumer issues, visit www.consumer.sc.gov or call toll-free 800-922-1594.

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