Avoiding Vehicle Purchase Scams

Finding a relatively new car for a really low price sounds like a dream come true but it can quickly turn into a nightmare if you aren’t careful. And whether you're buying or selling a car, you need to protect yourself from vehicle scams.


How to Protect Yourself

The dream car at the dream price could really be a scam. Scammers are posting vehicles on Autotrader, Craigslist, eBay and other sites posing as sellers trying to quickly rid themselves of a vehicle for various reasons. Typically the seller will offer the vehicle for a price well-below the actual value of the vehicle. Often times they will even offer to ship the vehicle to you for free.

  • Scammers often like to communicate only through email. Be wary of anyone who you cannot or will not speak to on the phone or meet in person. Or if the person refuses to give you contact information or the information they give doesn’t check out. If they give you an address or phone number do a search online to make sure it’s legitimate.
  • Know what the vehicle is actually worth. Most legitimate sellers aren’t going to sell a vehicle that’s in good condition for half of what it’s actually worth. You can check a vehicle’s value on www.nada.com.
  • Be cautious if they offer to ship the car for free. Paying to ship a vehicle across the United States or from another country is expensive.
  • Be suspicious if the seller gives you a deadline or starts pressuring you to make a decision.
  • If the seller begins communication on one email address and then switches to a second email address be suspicious. Often scammers will open free email accounts to communicate with potential victims. If they get caught and their email address is closed, they are forced to open a second one to communicate with you. They will usually claim to have had problems with the first address.
  • See a vehicle in person. Anyone can take a photo of a vehicle or copy a photo from a legitimate ad and post it online to sell.
  • If they want you to use a Western Union money wire or an escrow account proceed with caution. Many websites, like eBay, do not support using money orders to pay for purchases.

If you end up going through with the purchase of the vehicle and it turns out to be a scam, you most likely will not get your money back. If you got an auto loan to purchase the vehicle, you will be responsible for repayment of the loan.

Buyers aren’t the only ones who need to beware. Sellers can also be affected by scams. Here are a few tips if you are planning to sell your vehicle yourself:

  • Never accept an over-payment for the vehicle. Scammers will try to give you a check for more than the agreed upon amount and then ask you to give them the cash difference. When the check is deposited a certain amount may be made automatically available to you while the financial institution waits for the check to clear. The check then bounces after you’ve already paid the “buyer” the “extra” amount.
  • Just because the funds from a check are in your account does not mean that the check has cleared. Checks can take a few weeks to clear. Financial institutions will usually make the funds available after a day or two but can take the money back if the check ends up bouncing. Do not give the title to the vehicle to the buyer until the check has completely cleared. Suggest that a third party – like an attorney – hold onto the title until the check completely clears.
  • Get everything in writing.
  • Don’t let the buyer pressure you into a quick sale.
  • Verify any contact information they give you. Online you can use a reverse directory to look up addresses for phone numbers, or type their address into a search engine to make sure it comes up as a legitimate residential address.

There are legitimate deals online – you just need to proceed with caution and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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