5 Used Car Buying Scams to Always Avoid

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You always buy used cars — why would you buy a new vehicle, when its value drops 20 percent once you drive it off the lot? But when you’re looking for a bargain on a used car, are you aware of all the ways you can be ripped off? Do you know how to avoid all the used car buying scams out there?

Five Common Used Car Buying Scams

We have put together this article on some of the most commonly used techniques for scamming car buyers. Don’t get played by these thieves. Understand how they work to avoid any financial loss in this already stressful situation.

1. The “Curbstoning” Car Scam

The setup: On Craigslist or Facebook, you may see a decent-looking older BMW advertised for a low price. You go to meet the seller in front of his house in a wealthy part of town, and he seems nice. He obviously isn’t hurting for cash, so that’s probably why he’s selling the car so cheap. Right? When you say you want to buy it, he tells you the paperwork will be handled by his buddy, a car dealer who’s doing him a favor.

The scam: The guy you’re talking to is an unscrupulous car dealer who’s posing as a regular dude. He may be unlicensed, so that’s why he’s selling the car on the street; or he may have had a hard time moving the car from his lot, so he’s trying this friendlier approach. “The car’s perceived value is higher when being sold by an individual in a nice neighborhood than it would be when sold by a used car dealer in a bad part of town,” Road & Track explains. Curbstoning is legal in many states, but that doesn’t mean it’s not shady.

To avoid this common Craigslist car scam, pay attention to the details. Ask to see the title — does the name match the person you’re talking to? Look at other ads posted around the same time: Is the same guy selling several cars?

2. The “I’m Overseas” Car Buying Scam

The setup: Browsing online classic-car ads, you find a gem: a 1978 Datsun 280Z in fantastic condition, listed for $10K less than what you’d expect. You have to have it. When you message the seller, she says she’s in the process of moving back to the U.S. from Spain, where the car’s stored in a garage. If you send her half the money now via wire transfer, then she can arrange for the car to be shipped to you.

The scam: You send the money — and you never hear from the seller again. Sometimes, these scammers try to reassure you by suggesting an escrow service: a company that will hold the funds in a trust until you receive the car. But the escrow service is fake, and your cash is gone.

To avoid this type of car buying scam, be on the lookout for offers that seem too good to be true, and don’t deal with overseas sellers. If escrow is ever necessary, insist on choosing a reputable company yourself.

3. The “I’m Desperate” Car Buying Scam

The setup: A guy says he needs to sell his two-year-old GMC Canyon pickup fast because he’s being deployed in a week. He’s pricing it low, and it’s in perfect condition — he even provides the VIN if you want to check for yourself. The only problem is, he’s out of town and not available to meet with you or show you the truck. The seller says he’ll pay to have it shipped to you, but he needs the money now because he’s leaving so soon.

The scam: Just like with the overseas used-car seller, this guy will take your money and run. Be wary of any seller who claims to be in a rush and unable to meet because he or she is:

  • Facing a military deployment
  • Going through a divorce
  • Dealing with a family emergency
  • On a boat for months (or unreachable for some other reason)

Use your common sense: If you legitimately had to sell a newer vehicle in a hurry, would you price it super-low and sell it online to someone out of town? Or would you simply sell it to a local used-car dealership?

The Fudged Paperwork Car Buying Scam

The setup: When you’re buying a used car, all the paperwork makes it look really good. It’s still under warranty. It’s a certified used car. And the title is clean. Perfect!

The scam: That paperwork is fraudulent. The warranty is actually void. It hasn’t really been “certified” — the seller just put a fancy sticker on the window. And the car had a salvage title or rebuilt title before it was reissued a clean title in another state (this is called title-washing.)

To avoid these types of car scams, don’t take any of the seller’s claims for granted. Instead, take the time to do your homework. First, get the VIN number from the car and check it with a legit vehicle history provider. (There’s always a chance the VIN has been changed, but getting the vehicle report can help you find out.) Call the vehicle manufacturer to confirm if it’s still under warranty. And don’t trust any “certified pre-owned” claims unless they’re backed up by an actual dealership.

The “Guaranteed Protection” Car Buying Scam

The setup: You’ve been discussing a possible car purchase with a seller who seems just a little bit shady. When you express your concerns, the seller reassures you that your purchase is protected by eBay’s Vehicle Protection Program, a Craigslist guarantee, or some other buyer protection program. He even sends you an official-looking email confirming it.

The scam: That email is fake, and your purchase is not protected. eBay does have a solid Vehicle Protection Program that protects you against certain scams, like non-delivery of a vehicle or undisclosed defects, but this program is only available when you buy a car through eBay. Craigslist does not have such a program and does not certify sellers or purchases. In short, if someone claims that your purchase is “guaranteed” in some way, it’s probably a used car buying scam.

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