WASHINGTON—For many consumers, buying a car can be stressful because of all the decisions involved in the process. You need to think about the price range, safety ratings, make and model, gas or electric or hybrid, and financing.(but not with the buying tools here on the auto channel).

Because it’s even more daunting when shopping for a quality used car, GEICO is offering key guidelines for consumers to consider before they buy.

But first there are a few things you need to understand about VIN numbers - vehicle identification numbers. Every car is built with its own unique VIN number stamped in metal somewhere on the frame.

These distinctive numbers can be fraudulently changed – either on the vehicle or on paper documents - to hide the fact that the car has been stolen.

This method of selling stolen cars to unsuspecting consumers is known as VIN fraud, or car cloning. It is extremely hard to detect.

GEICO recommends you keep these five things in mind to avoid becoming a victim of VIN fraud:

  1. Select a reputable car dealer – Read dealer reviews, check with the Better Business Bureau, or get personal referrals from friends and family to help choose a seller you can trust.
  2. Have a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchasing – Examine the VIN plate for signs it may have been tampered with.
  3. Inspect all title and ownership documents –Conduct a title search to confirm ownership. The Federal Government's National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) can be used to access title documents and other important vehicle information. Be sure the seller's information matches that listed on the title. Confirm the VIN found on the car is consistent with all documents and records as well.
  4. Get a detailed used car history report – Verify car history, past ownership, accident history, liens, maintenance and flood damage. Before purchasing a car, be aware of its full history to help you make a more informed decision. Car history reports can also be obtained from NMVTIS or online sources such as carfax.com.
  5. Perform a VIN check – Visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau website to access the VIN check feature. This tool can help determine if a vehicle has been reported stolen or salvaged.