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How to avoid online car buying scams

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Buying a car online from the comfort of your living room with a few simple clicks has its perks, but it also brings some risk. As with most of the online world, scams have crept into the space. It’s important to be aware of common cons so you don’t lose money in the process of getting a new vehicle.  

Common online car buying scams  

There are a few common scams to look out for when browsing online for a car. 

Identity theft    

Some scammers are not only looking to swindle you out of your money but looking to gather your personal information. In this case, scammers will request information like your Social Security number, birthdate or banking numbers. Do not share any personal information with potential sellers. If you must share maintenance records, be sure to black out any private information.  

Curbstoning   

This scam is when a dealer pretends to be a private seller with the intent to sell a vehicle that doesn’t comply with normal dealer regulations — meaning it has a salvaged title. This will cause major headaches and can be avoided by staying away from vehicles sold online from vacant lots, on the side of the road or even at the seller’s home.  

Fake advertisements    

During your car search you might run into online advertisements of vehicles for sale. But without confirmation of the vehicle’s VIN number do not purchase it. It is common for scammers to present a vehicle in an advertisement without having it.  

Red flags to look out for  

Watch out for these common red flags before giving an online seller your personal information or money.  

Buying sight unseen  

It is never a good idea to purchase a vehicle without seeing it. Not only is it best to take your potential car for a test drive and see how it fits you but buying sight unseen can mean the car might not look like the pictures or worse — not exist at all.   

Request for wire transfer   

If the potential seller is requesting a wire transfer for the vehicle payment, it is best to walk away. This is a common tactic that scammers use to take your money with no vehicle in return. The money wired is not traceable and very difficult to recover. This means you may be left with no car and no potential refund.  

They want payment via gift cards  

Similar to scammers wanting payment via wire transfer, some sellers will request gift cards for the payment of the car. This should tell you to walk away; gift cards are not traceable and mean the seller is hiding something.  

Is online car buying a good idea? 

The possibility of being scammed online is scary — especially with so much money on the line — but don’t let the chance of this happening deter you from embracing the ease of the online buying process. By being an informed consumer aware of the common tactics scammers take you will be less likely to be duped and more likely to drive away happy with your vehicle purchase.  

But if you think you have fallen victim to an online scammer there are a few steps you should take in order to get your money back and help stop the scammer. 

  1. File a complaint directly with the National Consumer League’s fraud center. 
  2. Also file with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. 
  3. Report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission.   
  4. Keep track of your bank activity. Contact your bank with the information of the fraud and reset any username or passwords connected to the account.   

The bottom line   

The key to success when it comes to avoiding potential scams is to trust your gut. If a car deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Take the time to understand common scammer tactics so you can do your best to avoid losing money.  

Written by
Rebecca Betterton
Auto Loans Reporter
Rebecca Betterton is the auto loans reporter for Bankrate. She specializes in assisting readers in navigating the ins and outs of securely borrowing money to purchase a car.
Edited by
Auto loans editor