How to spot an Internet car scam

When buying a car online, identify red flags that signal someone’s trying to rip you off

The Internet is a great tool when looking to buy a used car, allowing you to search for specific makes and models in your area with the press of a button. At the same time, sites like Craigslist and eBay are fraught with ads misrepresenting or outright lying about potential vehicles.

According to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators, the biggest complaints surrounding online car trouble involve misrepresentations in ads, faulty repairs and scams involving used car sales.

Online car sales have been very good to con artists, who, by some estimates, have scammed their way to $50 million in profits over the last four years. Scammers regularly hijack online ads claiming to “sell” vehicles they do not own and have no intention of actually selling. When you see a fancy car selling at an eyebrow-raising low price, chances are it’s a hustle. The best way to protect yourself is to stick by the old adage, If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Also be on the lookout for down-and-out stories – a sudden illness or loss of a job – as they can be used to ensnare potential buyers. These hard-luck tales are often used as an excuse for shockingly low sales prices born out of a need for quick cash.

On the eBay Motors Security Center page, the site warns to walk away from Craigslist sellers promising eBay protection programs. eBay offers Vehicle Purchase Protection for up to $50,000, so con men often reference the program to lull buyers into a false sense of security.

 

Red flags when you're buying a car online

 

--A seller who's unwilling to

meet in person or allow the vehicle to be examined. The excuses can get creative, but may be as simple as "I'm moving and won't be in town." Don't fall for it. 

--A seller who's pressuring for a quick sale. A deal that's good now will be good in a few days or a week. Take measure of whether you feel rushed--if so, pull the chute on the deal.

--There's a long sob story built into the car. The seller is trying to use sympathy to find a gap in your common sense. If you start hearing about terminal illnesses or death in the family, give the seller a short "Sorry to hear that" and shut the door behind you.

---A request to use a money transfer service, such as Western Union. DO NOT use such a service to pay a stranger for a car. See www.westernunion.com/stopfraud.

--An email in your inbox informing you you've won an online auction for a used car. Go back to the website and double-check. Con artists can capture e-mail addresses and contact you directly about cars being sold by someone else.

--An out-of-country request. It's not always bogus, but it should invite close scrutiny.

--A request to pay a seller by loading cash onto a store-bought prepaid card. Consumer agencies say the cards are an easy way for scammers to get cash and not get caught.


If you follow these steps and you’re still feeling uncomfortable about a potential purchase, sites like Canadian Black Book and Canadian Red Book can be quickly and easily referenced to look at vehicle history and value. The best way to avoid underhanded sellers and shady deals is to stick to official channels eBay or Canadian Black Book, as scammers have a much harder time going unnoticed on regulated sites.