New cars are quite expensive these days. Considering how much value a car loses when it drives off the lot, buying a used car can be a great way to save a lot of money. But buying a used car requires a bit more research, patience, and a healthy degree of skepticism to get a good deal.
Let’s talk about used car scams and how to avoid getting ripped off.
What are some common used car scams?
Scam #1: The Sell Now Scam
The seller posts a picture of a real car that is for sale, but in fact they do not own the car. On the ad they claim that they need to sell the car fast and at a deep discount for one reason or another. Sometimes they claim it’s because a loved one died and they need to get rid of it quickly for sentimental reasons, other times they claim they have been deployed. But they require a partial payment to confirm that you will buy the car. Once they receive the money, they disappear and you never see your money again.
Scam #2: The Gift Card Scam
The seller requests gift cards as payment instead of cash. They instruct the buyer to purchase x amount of gift cards, and when they receive the gift cards you are unable to contact them again. This payment is untraceable, and the unusual request should alert you right away that it is a scam.
Scam #3: The “I’m Affiliated With…” Scam
The seller fakes a partnership or relationship with a reputable dealer. Their website will boast that they are affiliated with eBay or Cars.com or another legitimate company, when in reality they have no such relationship. They often use fake phone numbers and even link to fake websites that mimic legitimate dealer sites, all in an effort to fool you into thinking they are a legitimate operation.
Scam #4: The Escrow Scam
The seller appears to be on the up and up and suggests putting the money in escrow until the sale is finalized. The buyer feels that this is in good faith, makes the escrow payment, and then never hears from the seller again. In reality there was no escrow company and the money was really made to the scammer directly.
Scam #5: The Curbstoning Scam
The seller convinces the buyer to meet in a public space such as a parking lot or the curb of a road. They then put the pressure on to buy their car, which is made to look like a safe, normal car. In reality the car has dangerous issues that would make it illegal to sell under normal circumstances, such as a bent frame. When the cash is received, the seller leaves and the buyer realizes that they do not have the necessary paperwork and are left out of money and out of a car.
Scam #6: The “It Only Needs a Little Work” Scam
The seller places ads that their car is working great, it just “needs a little work”, usually something minor and inexpensive. They might tell the buyer that the engine just needs a new spark plug, and once the spark plug is replaced it will work perfectly. The buyer hands over the money and makes the necessary repairs, only to realize that the spark plug was not the problem, but in fact the whole engine needs to be replaced.
Scam #7: The VIN Cloning Scam
The seller posts an ad, sells the car, and everything seems legitimate. But in fact the VIN is a duplicate VIN, a clone of a car that has a clean record. The car that the buyer just bought is actually a stolen car or a car that is defective. If it is discovered to be a stolen car, it may be repossessed from you and returned to its original owner.
Scam #8: The Title Washing Scam
The seller has a car that has been deemed totaled, usually because it was in a flood or an accident. The title of the car is branded so that everyone can see that the car is not fit to drive. The seller “washes'' the title, transferring the title to a state where the DMV will not recognize the branding. They then get a new title where no branding exists and the car’s salvage status is erased. The buyer has no idea that the car they are purchasing is in fact unsafe to drive. This is a scam that has been pulled by private sellers and used dealers alike.
Scam #9: The Odometer Scam
The seller manually adjusts the odometer reading of the car they are selling to make it appear as if the car has been driven less than it actually has. This is unfortunately a very common occurrence. The NHTSA estimates that nearly half a million cars are sold each year with manipulated odometer readings.
Scam #10: The Purchase Protection Scam
The seller claims to have a purchase protection program that will protect the buyer and lull them into a sense of ease. In reality the purchase protection plan is bogus, and is only made to look legitimate through fake numbers and a shiny website. Buyers make deposits and payments, only to never hear from the seller again.
How can I protect myself from used car scams?
Protecting yourself from scams requires research and common sense. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is and it’s best to run the other way. Here are some other tips to protect yourself from fraud.
Research the buyer.
If you are buying from a dealership, dig around online to find out about their reputation. If you find some alarming reviews, it’s best to believe them and find another dealer. You can also check their standing with the Better Business Bureau to find out if they have complaints filed against them. If it’s a private seller, see if there’s any information you can find online. Check the phone number they give you to make sure it’s a real number. If you cannot find any trace of the person online, they may not exist.
If you are dealing with an online seller, dig deep into their website and don’t believe everything you read. If they claim they are affiliated with another company like eBay, go to eBay’s website to confirm.
Research the car.
The seller should be able to give you the car’s VIN. This will allow you to access the CARFAX and run a title check. This will alert you to VIN cloning and title washing and will alert you to any funny business with the odometer.
Don’t make advance payments.
Don’t fall for the rush rush rush sales tactics. There is never a need to instantly send someone money. There is no deal in the world that is that good and on the up and up. There is really no need for a seller to demand a deposit, so avoid making one. If there is an instance where it is warranted, be sure to get a receipt.
Meet in person.
If a seller refuses to meet you in person, that should be a big red flag. Of course you want to be safe about any and all meetups, but you should always see the car–and the seller–in person, especially before handing over any money.
Look at the title carefully.
Before handing over any money be sure to scrutinize the car’s title. Make sure the VIN on the title matches the one on the car and check the odometer reading. If it is smudged on the title, that is another red flag.
Be leery of cash only transactions.
While some people love dealing in cash, be leery if this is the only payment the seller will accept. You cannot trace cash the way that you can trace a check or credit card transaction. Criminals prefer untraceable methods for obvious reasons, so be on the lookout for how they react to different payment methods.
Use good old common sense.
While doing your research is the best way to prepare and avoid a scam, you should still listen to that tiny voice in your head. If a seller is giving off weird vibes, being evasive in your conversations, or rushing you a bit too much, listen to your heart. There are a lot of cars out there and another deal will come your way sooner or later. If you fall for a scam you will be out of money and have very little to show for it. Better to protect yourself (and your money) by being cautious.
Those are some common used car buying scams (and how you can protect yourself from them).
If you already have a car that you are making payments on, you can protect yourself in a different way–by refinancing your car loan with Auto Approve. Car loan refinance can save you a lot of money, and who couldn’t use some extra money?