Key takeaways

  • Buying a vehicle online can increase your risk of being scammed. Some common scams include identity theft, fake ads and curbstoning.
  • To avoid the risk of being scammed, it's best not to give any payment information until you see the vehicle in person.
  • If you believe you have been scammed, it's crucial to file a complaint with the National Consumer League's fraud center, contact your state attorney general, file with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and report the fraud to the FTC.

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

Common online car buying scams

The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has some tips for online car sales —but 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 also looking to gather your personal information. They will request information like your Social Security number, birthdate or banking numbers. Never share personal information with potential sellers aside from your name and phone number.

Fake adds

When searching for a private sale, you may see advertisements that don’t list the VIN, or vehicle identification number. If you cannot confirm that the vehicle exists by seeing it in person and making sure the VIN matches the vehicle, don’t send money. It is not uncommon for scammers to present a vehicle in an advertisement without having it. And even if the vehicle exists, confirm that it is not listed as stolen and has a clean vehicle history report.


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 or is otherwise damaged. In these cases, the seller does not disclose the issues of the title, making it salvaged and thus creating significant headaches when it comes to insuring the vehicle.

You can avoid this scam by staying away from vehicles sold online from vacant lots, on the side of the road or even at the seller’s home. And as with any private sale, ensure you check that the seller and VIN are legitimate before you agree to buy.

Buying sight unseen

Never agree to purchase a vehicle without seeing it. Not only is it best to take your potential car for a test drive and independent inspection, but buying sight unseen can mean the car might not look like the pictures or worse — not exist at all. If the seller rushes you or encourages you to make a quick sale before you can see the car in person, it is likely a scam.

Request for wire transfer or gift cards

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

Similar to scammers wanting payment via wire transfer, some sellers will request gift cards for the payment. Again, walk away. Gift cards are not traceable; if the seller requests them, they’re likely trying to scam you.


Title-washing is an attempt to hide damage from a flood or wreck or other title issues. Even if you must pay for it yourself, always get a vehicle history report for the VIN. This isn’t guaranteed to show you everything the car has gone through, but it can help you avoid falling prey to a scammer looking to offload an unsafe car.

Fake escrow account

Using an escrow account is a legitimate way to keep both parties safe from fraud. However, scammers may use a fake escrow account to trick you into depositing money directly into the seller’s account. When it comes time to pick up the vehicle and transfer the title, the seller is no longer available to be contacted — and you are left with no way to recover your money.

Is online car buying a good idea?

If you go through a legitimate service, then buying a car online can be just as safe as a dealership. Even if you go with a private seller, don’t let the chance of a scam happening deter you. Being an informed consumer will make you less likely to be duped and more likely to drive away happy with your vehicle purchase.

Benefits of online car buying

If you know what scams to look out for and go through a legitimate source, buying a car online has benefits.

  • Primarily, it saves time. You don’t have to go to multiple dealerships and deal with physically browsing inventory on a lot.
  • Buying online means unlimited shopping opportunities. Since you aren’t limited to the selection at a dealership, you may be able to find a more exact match for your needs.
  • No sales pressure — after all, you’ll likely be scrolling through websites on your phone or computer, not subjecting yourself to professional salespeople.
  • If you opt for a service like Carvana, you can access national delivery. There may be a fee, but it could be worth it for the right car.

Drawbacks of online car buying

Aside from scams, there are a few reasons people still choose traditional dealers:

  • Big online sources mean no negotiation. You will be able to negotiate with a private seller, though you will run the risk of being caught in a scam.
  • Lenders may not offer financing for a private sale when you are looking online. If they do, you may find that the rates are higher than with a new or used car loan.
  • You may not be able to do an in-person inspection until you meet with the seller or have the car delivered. And it may be more difficult to have a mechanic inspect it when you shop online.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

If you think you have fallen victim to an online scam, there are a few steps you should take.

  1. File a complaint directly with the National Consumer League’s fraud center.
  2. Contact your state attorney general.
  3. File with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  4. Report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission.

It may be difficult or impossible to get your money back if you sent it through a wire transfer or handed over gift cards. However, keep track of your bank activity if you entered any information on an illegitimate website. If you see any activity, contact your bank about the fraud and reset any usernames or passwords connected to the account.

The bottom line

If a car deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Buying a car online can be a perfectly safe way to get a used vehicle. But you need to keep an eye out for common scams and trust your gut.

If something seems off, it probably is. At the end of the day, there are plenty of used cars on the market. You can always walk away from a sale and find another, more legitimate seller on trusted websites — or just opt for a used car dealership.