Some people think buying a used car is risky business – especially if you’re buying it from an individual, as opposed to a dealer. It’s hard to know what you’re getting – whether the car is in good condition, etc. You may decide to consult a mechanic before making your purchase.

Now you can run a search on the car’s vehicle identification number and find out if it’s ever been in a wreck or flooded out. Water damaged cars became more of a concern after Hurricane Katrina.

The Department of Justice has launched the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System Resource Center – an online database where you can search on a car’s VIN and find out a car’s history.

NMVTIS data is incomplete, but it’s a start. Currently 27 states contribute data to the system, with others required to do so by January 2010. Consumer Action, a consumer advocacy group that lobbied for the database, states that only 13 states currently provide complete information to the system.

To access the database you have to go through a third party provider and potentially pay a small fee. But it’s worth it if it saves you from shelling out money on a lemon.

For now, next time you go look for a used car bring your notepad and pen and write down the VIN. Or run a search on the spot accessing the Internet using your iPhone or Blackberry.

Feb. 2, 2009.