Recognizing an online car sale scam

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Shopping online for a used car? You need to be able to identify the scam ads – and there are a lot of them.

car scam


Everyone wants to score a great deal when they buy a car. If you go to a car dealer, you might be able to negotiate a fair price. But if you shop around and look for a car being sold by an individual, you might get a REALLY great bargain. Sometimes people have a car and they just want to get rid of it, and they aren’t really worried about getting the price that it’s really worth. That’s what a lot of potential car buyers are looking for. But that strong incentive to find an amazing deal is also what ends up costing the buyer a lot of money – because they fall for a scam.

There are a few things to look for when you’re shopping the used car ads – things that should pop up as a red flag that what you’re looking at might be a scam. Here are a few of them.

First, a ridiculously low price. For example, I went on OfferUp and just searched on the word Honda. This is one of the first ads that came up. A nice 2012 Honda Accord, only 86k miles, always garage kept and it has no mechanical issues. You might expect to pay $8000 to $10,000 for a car like this. But look, this one is only $1400!

Car scam

And when an ad like this comes up, a lot of people will say, “No way that could be real” and they keep scrolling. BUT…there are a certain percentage of people who think, “I know that doesn’t really make sense, but what if it’s just a really good deal? I have to investigate further!”. That’s the exact response the scammer is looking for.

Second, look for the seller to include an email address in the description. They want you to contact them by email, rather than clicking the “Contact seller” button on the website.

car scam

Why is that? Because if you start a conversation using the website’s communication service, the scammer might have you believing the whole story and ready to make the purchase. Then, someone else sees the ad and reports it – and the scammer’s account gets immediately closed. That means he immediately loses his avenue of communication with you. If you start off using email, he can continue the scam even if his seller account gets shut down. Of course, his email account could also get deleted, but that’s less likely..

Really, those first two items should tell you to NOT pursue buying this car because it is definitely a scam. But if you do continue (maybe to just act as a buyer to see what happens, even if you know it’s not a real car for sale), here’s the next thing to watch for: an emotional story.

I emailed an ad a while back (research purposes), and this is the message I got back from the “seller” –

car scam

So I guess in this case, her potential scam victims aren’t just people looking for a good deal on a car, it’s also those who are willing to practically steal a car from a grieving widow. Nice!

The other very common story with these scammers is that they are in the US military. That is very deliberate, because it plants a subconscious evidence of honesty and credibility into the story. After all, would a United States soldier lie to you? In the case of the letter above, she claimed to be a recent widow AND a military doctor. Must be legit, right?

And finally – if you keep going this far with the fake seller – they will try to assure you that it’s all real, because the deal is going to happen through the security of eBay selling process. But wait a minute, you didn’t find the car on eBay, did you? It was listed on Craigslist or OfferUp or some other online classified ad site. So how is eBay involved? Answer: eBay is not involved at all.

The scammer wants you to feel confident that it’s all real, so they pretend that the whole transaction is going to happen through ebay Motors. They will tell you that you have no shipping costs, and you can even drive the car for 5 days before your money is even released from eBay to the seller. This is 100% false. If the car was not listed on eBay, and purchased by your bidding on the eBay listing, eBay has zero involvement with this sale and they will not protect you in any way.

What should you do when you see a scam car ad?

Well, in most cases I would tell you that you should report it so that the scammer’s account gets removed. But now I’m kind of leaning toward the notion that it’s not really worth your time. When I recently went on OfferUp and searched for the word Honda, the FIRST FIVE LISTINGS were all scams. I don’t think the websites can keep up with all the fake listings.

Check this out – on OfferUp, there’s a seller named Gianna who had a Honda Accord for sale for just $800. This was in Gulfport, Florida, about 30 minutes from where I live.

But when you look at her “other items” for sale, you can see she has the SAME CAR listed 19 different times. And that car is supposedly for sale in multiple cities in Michigan, Louisiana, California and Massachusetts (and other cities). And every ad I clicked on had just been created MINUTES earlier. The oldest ad I saw was 27 minutes old.

car scam

This means that the scammer can get their account shut down by someone reporting the scam, and they are immediately ready to open a new account with the complete set of listings posted almost immediately. It seems like the seller sites could come up with some kind of mechanism to defeat this, but so far it seems to all rely on the scammers being reported by other users. And that doesn’t seem to be very effective.

Bottom line – watch out for these things and don’t fall for the scams. Always deal with a seller face to face. Never send cash or Western Union (or iTunes gift cards). Don’t let your desire for a bargain override your common sense.

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