The Net has globalized the auto recycling industry, but it's buyers beware.
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA - The ring of mold on the ceiling of Colleen McGaw's Mini Cooper marks how high Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters rose.
"I cried. It may sound lame, but I cried. I had wanted a car like that since I was a child," McGaw says, recalling how she found the car, her college graduation present, three months after the storm submerged her New Orleans neighborhood.
Two years later, McGaw was shocked to learn that her beloved Mini turned up 3,600 miles south in Bolivia. Its new owner -- stuck with a complete overhaul at $23,000 and counting -- is feeling her pain.
Tens of thousands of cars were damaged or destroyed by Katrina, which submerged much of New Orleans in a corrosive broth of saltwater and mud. U.S. officials warned Americans to beware of buying the drowned cars.
But many "Autos Katrina" were shipped overseas, often sold through Internet salvage auctions now globalizing the auto recycling industry.
Totaled cars used to be sold mostly at local auctions to scrap-metal dealers and serious gearheads, who understood the risks of the trade. But in the past five years, an explosion in online sales has lured shoppers around the world.
Suspected Katrina cars -- with their jittery wiring, sand in the cracks and the telltale mildewed stink -- have cropped up in a number of countries, but Bolivia has become a particular target. One local agency believes 10,000 or more flooded U.S. cars may have ended up in the landlocked nation, drawn by loose import rules, a thriving smugglers' economy and an insatiable hunger for cheap wheels.
McGaw's insurer, Geico, gave her a check for $18,500 for her car. The Mini began its second life when it was sold to Copart Inc., one of the largest U.S. auto salvage companies, which listed the Mini in an online auction in early 2006, saying it had suffered from "waterflow."
The Bolivian buyer paid $7,000 for it, and it's still a long way from joining the traffic jam. Its new owner -- worried that publicity will reduce the car's resale value and perhaps smarting from automotive heartbreak -- declined to be interviewed.
Said his mechanic Ramiro Sanchez: "He's totally demoralized, but he doesn't just want to give up on it, either."