Trying to buy a car online will leave you vulnerable to scammers who either want to take your money and run or sell you a car that's in really poor shape.
Do you ever wonder if maybe the story of Jack and the Beanstalk teaches kids a dangerous lesson about the risk of being scammed? Because—and let’s be honest here—999,999,999 times out of a trillion, the kid who just traded the family cow for a couple of beans is getting taken for a ride. And yet Jack’s story just so happens to highlight the one entirely implausible instance where those beans actually were magic. It’s wildly irresponsible if you ask us.
Case in point: If you are thinking about buying a car online via Craigslist or another online marketplace, then you should push the story of Jack and his magic beans as far from your mind as you can. Because there are indeed scammers lurking out there on the web, looking to either sell you a lemon or even steal your money outright. There will be no magic beanstalk, no giant’s treasure, none of it. If you get taken in by a scammer, it’ll just be you and that handful of regular ol’ beans.
That’s why we’re here: To pedantically poke holes in centuries-old fairy tales written for children and to keep you safe from online car-buying scams!
How online car-buying scams work.
Justin Lavelle is a scams prevention expert and the Chief Communications Officer of background check provider BeenVerified.com. Here’s his description of how online car buying scams typically play out:
“The scammer will target an unsuspecting online shopper who is looking for a car at a bargain price. They’ll use a popular site like Cars.com or Craigslist. The car ad will include several photos and a link to the car’s history report showing that the car is in good condition and includes a clean title.
“The fake car ads are using information that they’ve cloned from legitimate listings. The scammer includes an email address for inquiries, but no telephone number.”
And here’s what happens once the scammer’s mark takes the bait and makes contact:
“The victim emails asking for more details on the vehicle,” says Lavelle. “The scammer replies and says that they are, for example, a pilot preparing to relocate and that they’re forced to sell the car, which is why you’re getting such an amazing deal.
“They explain that the car purchase is a simple process which includes you wiring the money to an escrow company which will then retain the money until you’re in receipt of the vehicle. They send the victim a link to the website of the escrow company.
“Again, the escrow sites have been cloned. They even include a vehicle purchase protection program that states that once the buyer receives the car, should they decide it wasn’t what they wanted, they can receive a full refund.”
Additionally, some car scams involve the scammer trying to sell you a lemon. And just to be clear: We don’t mean an actual yellow lemon. Although receiving a lemon instead of a car would be both annoying and a successful scam on their part.
No, we mean the scammer is trying to sell you a car that is actually in far worse shape than it first appears. Everything seems right and good with the vehicle until suddenly, 20 miles later, you discover a family of possums living under the hood. Not fun!
Here’s how you can keep yourself safe.
Like with any other type of scam, protecting yourself in these situations comes down to one thing above all else, and that’s remaining skeptical. Instead of taking things that the seller tells you at face value, push back and demand verification. If the seller keeps making excuses, that’s your red flashing warning sign that’s something wrong.
Beyond that, there are many steps you can take and clues you can uncover to suss out a potential online car-buying fraud.
“Don’t conduct business with online sellers who refuse to discuss the sale via phone, meet with you in person, or allow you the option to inspect the vehicle before you make your purchase,” said Lavelle, adding that you should “Be cautious of a seller insisting on using a specific online escrow company. Chances are, it’s their attempt to send you to a cloned site.”
According to him, you should also treat an online car ad the same way you treat a suspicious email:
“Don’t click on any links provided by the online seller. Rather, open your browser and enter the company’s name, go to the site, and verify that the company legitimately offers the services the seller claims it does.
Lavelle also recommended that you guard your personal info just as closely with online sellers as you would with, well, with anyone else that you deal with on the internet.
“Don’t provide your personal and financial information online,” he said. “For instance, don’t send the seller your credit card information or your bank account information. Don’t send any personal information to the online escrow company until you’ve verified that it’s a legitimate company.”
Jake McKenzie, content manager at Auto Accessories Garage, also singled out suspicious payment methods as an important sign that you’re being scammed:
“A scammer’s favorite method of exchanging money is through a wire transfer or a bank-to-bank transfer. Any car seller that brings up one of these methods of currency exchange is almost always a scammer.”
“Most often the scammer claims to be outside of the country for any number of reasons,” he added, “so they explain a plan wherein they will ship the vehicle upon receiving a payment. Anyone unlucky enough to send a payment will never see the car, or their money, again.”
If it’s too good to be true …
Ever since humankind was capable of rubbing two sticks together, there have been untrustworthy folks trying to scam others with the promise of bigger, better, more rubbable sticks. So as McKenzie reminded us, sometimes the oldest advice is the best:
“The old adage goes ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ This has never been more true than with buying a car online. Scammers are an impatient lot that want to attract as many would-be buyers as they can, and they typically do this with an ad that sounds like the deal of a lifetime.”
Just as you can never fully trust the photos that someone uses in their online dating profile, you shouldn’t be relying only on the photos of a car that have been uploaded by the seller:
“I have purchased many cars online. You can never trust the pictures. They can be altered,” said Lauren Fix of Car Coach Reports. “Start by filtering through the listings and read all the details. Ask the seller multiple questions before moving forward. If the vehicle is not near your location, higher an appraiser or a friend to visit the seller and take a look, send pictures or do a FaceTime to get a real feel for what you are buying.
“If the value seems right, meet the owner and their vehicle at a mutual agreed care repair facility or dealer and have it inspected before taking ownership. Buying a car to find out that a major expense is being masked can be very painful to your wallet.”
Lastly, Lavelle had another great tip for sniffing out too-good-to-be-true scams. “Go to an online resource for car valuation, such as Edmunds or Kelly Blue Book,” he said. “Check the car’s value against the information provided on these sites. If the price is much lower, that’s a red flag.”
Use this checklist to avoid car scammers.
Valerie Coleman is a longtime automotive expert with online marketplace 5miles.com. She had a number of tips for people looking to buy a car online that can double as a handy scam prevention checklist:
“Vehicle identification numbers: Always make sure that you are shopping cars with published vehicle identification numbers. Each VIN is unique to each car. With this number, you can check ownership, accidents, and conditions of used cars.
“Down payments: Never send money prior to seeing the car. While an exception to this could be argued with reputable companies that offer seven-day ownership returns, smaller companies and private sellers often do not offer this type of protection. While buying a car sight unseen is becoming a more popular option, only reserve this option (if you can) for new cars that come from a reputable car dealership.
“Use known websites: Many websites and newspapers advertise both used and new cars. Scammers oftentimes target smaller, less known sites and papers because they’re less likely to track those who post ads. By contrast, sites like 5miles.com use triple verification, thereby making it more difficult to remain anonymous.
“Take the car to a mechanic: Cars can look great and still have major mechanical issues. If the car looks like too good to be true, it probably is. Arrange to have a mechanic you trust look at the car to give you insight into the overall condition of it. (Note: Underlying issues may not be found by a novice during a simple test drive.) If the seller refuses this request, walk away from the car.
“Ownership: If buying from a private seller, ask to see the title and verify ownership via identification. There have been cases of relatives, for example, selling cars that do not fully belong to them. If there is no title to show, this may not be a legitimate sale. Many scams are the result of individuals posting vehicles that do not belong to them. So be careful.
“It is important that you’re diligent when shopping for a car online, especially when it comes to digital retail. Use good judgment and trust your instincts,” added Coleman. And we couldn’t agree more.
Scammers these days might be a little too savvy to promise you magic beans, but a little bit knowledge and a good helping of common sense will help keep you safe.
Valerie Coleman is a 15-year veteran in the automotive industry. Her vast digital experience stems from more than a decade of working at AutoTrader, as well as helping to create a new digital automotive experience for the mobile marketplace platform, 5miles.com (@5milesapp). Under her leadership, 5miles has become a go-to lead generation source for local auto dealers throughout the U.S.
Lauren Fix (@laurenfix) is a nationally recognized automotive expert, media guest, journalist, author, keynote speaker, and television host. A trusted automotive expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics, energy and safety issues for both the auto industry and consumers. Her analysis is honest and straightforward. Lauren is the automotive expert for Car Coach Reports, The Weather Channel and Inside Edition. She is the CEO of Automotive Aspects, Inc., a consulting firm with a wide range of multi-media services, media consulting, broadcast messaging strategy, public relations, and television production. Lauren has authored three books: most recently, Lauren Fix’s Guide To Loving Your Car with St. Martins Press. Lauren Fix was inducted into the National Women and Transportation Hall of Fame in 2009—a very high honor for a hard working automotive professional.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses, and property records.
Jake McKenzie is the Content Manager at Auto Accessories Garage (@aagarage), a fast-growing, family-owned online retailer of automotive parts and accessories. He manages all written content for the website including research guides, product descriptions, and other informative articles. He also enjoys attending the annual SEMA Show, the premier automotive specialty products trade event held every November in Las Vegas. Jake often lends his opinions and expertise to a variety of online blogs, websites, and news sources.
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