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4 keys to buying a car online

Acquiring a new vehicle can be exciting, yet daunting. That challenge is magnified if you decide to purchase a car on the Internet.

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While the Internet often helps make buying a vehicle easy and cost-effective, it's not without risk.

"You have to go under the assumption that there's no safety net. ... I hear about fraud every day," says Jeff Ostroff, founder and editor of the consumer Web site CarBuyingTips.com.

The best precautions boil down to sound judgment and due diligence to avoid getting snagged in a bad situation in the first place.

"Just because you're buying a car online doesn't mean common sense goes out the window," says Chris Jacobs, an auto pro at eBay Motors.

"Like any purchase, make sure to ask as many questions as possible and know as much about the car as you can before agreeing to payment."

Online autos
The Internet can make car shopping a breeze, but it's important to do it right. Here are four tips for a smart online purchase.
4 tips for buying cars online
1. Check out the seller
2. Research your choice
3. Don't assume dealers are better
4. Play it safe when paying

Check out the seller
It's a common fear when shopping online: You find the car of your dreams and send off a deposit.

Then, the seller vanishes.

The secret to success when shopping for a car online is doing business with someone who is reputable, whether it's an automobile dealership or an individual via the Web.

Once you see a vehicle you're interested in, e-mail the seller and ask to see the car in person.

It doesn't matter if you don't intend to follow through with a scouting trip -- the point of asking is to see if a seller turns you down or is eager to make time for you.

"If you get any resistance, it's a fraud," Ostroff says. "There's no vehicle for sale."

Asking other questions is a great way to get to know a seller better and weed out potential phonies.

For example, ask for additional photographs of the vehicle if you want a better view of the car's interior, trunk or other parts. If a seller doesn't answer you quickly or seems evasive, move on. It's not worth the risk, says Mitch Turck, a consultant at DealerDNA, an automotive e-commerce solutions provider in New York.

Meanwhile, take advantage of the Internet to get to know a seller in other ways. Read the feedback posted by customers who've done business with a seller in the past, a feature of eBay Motors and other sites.

Identifying reputable sellers is crucial. Once your hard-earned money leaves your hands, it may be impossible to track down an online thief and get your funds back.

Next: "Vehicles sold 'as is' pose the greatest risk ..."
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