Edmunds: How to avoid fraud when purchasing a car online

Imagine that you are looking for a car on a popular site such as Autotrader or Craigslist. You will find exactly the way you want, with a very attractive price.

The ad has photos galore and even a link to a vehicle history report, showing that the car is in good condition and has a clear title. There is an e-mail address for your questions, but no phone number, so you write for more information. The seller’s reply, he volunteers that the car is so a great deal, because he is a pilot and has to move to the United Kingdom for a job with British Airways.

If you want the car, he explains, it’s easy to do: Just wire the payment from an escrow company, which will hold the payment until you receive the auto. He provides a link to the escrow company on the website. There is even a vehicle purchase protection program: If you look at the car and decide you do not want, you will be refunded. So what could go wrong?

Enough. That scenario, with some variation, is an online car-shopping fraud who has played with more than 29,000 times since 2014. Prospective buyers have been scammed of more than $54 million in December 2017, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The fake-car-ads use of information that is cloned from current offers. The vendors are not British Airways pilots, personal trainers, deployed Marines, or grieving widows — these are just stories that are used to the scam. The escrow sites are clones of the real sites, such as or brands such as Edmunds that are known, but offer no such services.

Dallas-based car-shipping service DAS, another company, whose website has spoofed by scammers, says that many buyers are not aware of they are taken until they ask DAS for their date of delivery. “For the past few years, we have received about three calls a week like this,” DAS notes in its site fraud warning. “About a third of the people who have already paid.”

The criminals behind the plans of the technical skills that are good enough to be a clone of advertisements and making functional-looking websites. And shoppers are already very familiar with buying online, even for expensive products. An NPR/Marist poll this month found that 27 percent of the shoppers bought an item online with a price tag of $1,000 or more. The purchase of a car, unseen, from a stranger may not seem to some buyers. The criminals count on that the belief in the legitimacy of online transactions.

The FBI and the sites that the fight against fraud, including Autotrader, eBay Motors and Edmunds, offer these tips to avoid the online car-buying fraud:

— Check the car’s real value of an online car valuation tool from Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book or NADAguides. If the price is too low, that is a tip-off.

— Avoid sellers who refuse to talk by phone, meet in person, or lets you physically inspect the vehicle before the purchase.

— Be careful if a seller insists on using a particular online escrow company. It is probably an attempt to send to a fraudulent website.

— Check of any purchase or escrow site URLS carefully. The name of the company and its domain (usually .com, as in or must be displayed at the end of the URL, or just for a slash. A fake Edmunds domain, for example, would be:

— Don’t rely on a site with a link of the seller supplies. Enter the name of the company name in a web browser, visit the site, and see whether the actual services the seller says it does.

— Be careful if you are offered a vehicle protection program. eBay Motors is such a program, but only for transactions that take place on the eBay Motors website. If you’re shopping elsewhere and the seller says eBay delivers that protection, it is a fraud.

— Make sure that your escrow company that you have the correct license. In California, for example, there is only one licensed online escrow company in which the services are available to the public:

— Never give your financial or personal information, such as a credit card number or bank information until you verify that the online escrow company you use is legitimate.

— Stay far away if the seller wants some unusual form of payment, such as gift certificates, iTunes cards, money, or sent via Western Union.

If you think you’ve been the victim of the online car-buying fraud, contact your bank directly to see if it can reverse the transfer. Then file a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant .

EDMUNDS SAYS: Be vigilant when you’re shopping online for private party cars. Scammers are sophisticated and highly motivated to get your money.


This story was provided to The Associated press release of the automotive website Edmunds. Carroll Lachnit is one of the senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds. Twitter: @clachnit.

Related links:

— Avoid the Online Car-Buying Fraud:

— FBI Advisory on Fraudulent Online Car-Ads:

— eBay Motors Security Center:

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