If you're in the market to buy a car, RV, boat, or other outdoor equipment, you should be on the lookout for criminals who may be listing items for sale that they don't actually own. In a recent Public Service Announcement, the FBI shared some information and tips on a growing scam where crooks are targeting those looking to buy cars and other vehicles online.
The FBI IC3 (Internet Complaint Center) released this alert because they've received approximately 26,967 complaints with losses totaling $54,032,396 since tracking this issue from May 2014 through December 2017.
How Does This Car Scam Work?
A criminal posts an online advertisement with a low price to get the attention of a buyer, including photos matching the description of the vehicle and contact information (usually a phone number and email address).
When you reach out to learn more about the vehicle, the "seller" sends more photos and a seemingly logical explanation for why the price is discounted and indicates an urgency to sell. Some common excuses given include:
- They're moving to a new location or being deployed.
- They received the vehicle as part of a divorce settlement.
- The vehicle belonged to a relative who died.
The thief may claim a partnership with legitimate companies like eBay when in reality they have no association with them. They may even mention a buyer protection program or guarantee. This scam is often intricate and they often send an email with a toll-free number that impersonates another company.
The criminal then instructs you to purchase prepaid gift cards in the amount of the sale and share the prepaid codes. You're usually told you'll receive the vehicle in a couple days.
What's next? Radio silence usually. You won't get any answer, response, or return calls. You're left without your money and still in need of a car.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
The rule of thumb that ‘if something seems too good to be true, it probably is' applies here as well. While you may find a deal on sites like Craigslist or Facebook, if you use major car-buying websites like Cars.com, they have dedicated teams to help protect both buyers and sellers against fraud. Cars.com recommends on their website that you:
1. Always Inspect a Car in Person Before Purchasing It
It's a red flag if a seller doesn't want to talk or meet in person and only communicates via email or text. Another warning sign includes a seller mentioning they don't currently have the vehicle or that they need to have it shipped.
It's best to have someone else go with you when you're meeting a seller to see a car as well, and even better if you have a family member, friend, or mechanic who knows a lot about cars and can check it out with you.
There are other things you'll want to check when buying a car as well, such as reviewing the vehicle history report and inspecting the status of the car title in person to ensure it's not a salvaged title (meaning its been deemed a total loss previously by the insurance company).
2. Avoid Car Listings That Seem Like a Steal
That new Tesla is a few thousand less than anywhere else you've seen it? It's probably not legit. There are tools to check car prices on sites like Cars.com and KBB.com so you can get an idea of the average price for the vehicle you're interested in buying.
3. Think Twice Before Sending Money
Alternative payment methods like wiring deposits, paying with gift cards, escrow services, and Bitcoin may not just mean you have to take extra steps, they could be a sign your seller is trying to pull one over on you.
You should also be careful sharing personal information unless it's necessary. If your Social Security number or bank account information gets into the wrong hands, you can set yourself up for future fraud because your details may be bought and sold on the dark web.
If you are in the market for a new or used car, get your ducks in a row before you buy and if necessary, look into options ahead of time for financing your car purchase.
It's also important to never click links in emails from recipients you don't know and to check the email address to ensure it's really from who it appears to be.
What To Do if You're The Victim of a Scam Like This
If you have been scammed and had money stolen, you'll want to:
- File a police report with your local police department.
- You should also file a complaint with the FBI and provide them with detailed information such as any information the thief gave you, any account numbers or places you sent funds, and a description of the details of the advertisements and communications.
- Also, if you did use a website or marketplace to purchase the car, notify that company immediately. Many companies have fraud departments and support teams to help resolve the situation and prevent the thief from taking advantage of other consumers.
You should make sure to keep documentation throughout the process, so you can cover yourself if anything doesn't go as expected (and you'll have that documentation easily accessible to share if needed).
New scams are popping up all the time. By staying aware and keeping an eye out for potential red flags, you can protect yourself when buying a car and during other everyday activities.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on February 28, 2018, and has been updated.