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How to check if the used car you buy has a dangerous safety recall

If you’re shopping for a used car, caveat emptor: You could buy one with a safety defect that could’ve been fixed by a free repair as part of a recall.

It’s easy to use the vehicle identification number, or VIN, to determine if the vehicle you’re about to buy has a potentially lethal Takata airbag, for instance, but the seller isn’t required to make the repair, or even tell you the car needs it.

Not every recall is a matter of life and death, but ignoring one courts disaster. Let the buyer beware.

Federal law requires that all new-car dealers fix any safety recall before sale, lease or rental, but there’s no requirement for used vehicles, which account for 30 million to 40 million sales a year, far more than new vehicles.

“Buyers should feel confident the vehicles they buy are safe,” said David Bennett, AAA repair systems manager. “If the manufacturer issues a recall, repairs should be performed as expeditiously as possible.”

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There are proposals to require the repairs before sale, but the issue is less straightforward than you might think. It can take months or years to get parts for some recalls, and requiring repairs could make it harder for owners to trade in vehicles, reduce their value or raise the cost of used cars.

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“Without a rule, consumers need to be their own advocates for this,” said Becky Mueller, senior research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They need to be vigilant about recalls as buyers and as owners.

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