Nearly 100 car sellers on Craigslist were targeted by a scam in the Chicago area that left sellers without their cars and holding rubber checks, the National Insurance Crime Bureau reported last year. In a 2014 case, a young student from Southern California was stabbed to death selling a car he advertised on Craigslist.
Selling your car online is a wonderful convenience, but it’s also become a feeding ground for scammers. The good news is that with a few precautions, you can avoid these traps.
Craigslist, the free, peer-to-peer classifieds website, is where you’ll find most used car bargains — and where con artists try to prey on gullible sellers. The online giant eBayMotors.com also lists used cars for sale or auction but has various purchase protection programs to discourage most types of fraud.
When asked why online car sales attract shady types, Frank Scafidi, public affairs director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, answered, “In a word, ‘anonymity.’ The internet attracts a lot of positive people, but it also attracts people who try to work their scam and then disappear back into the ether.”
Automotive enthusiast Josh Sadlier, a content strategist for Edmunds.com, has been buying and selling cars on Craigslist for years. He says that he’s never had someone try to cheat him but that he’s developed a “sixth sense for when someone might be shady.” He adds that if he creates a professional-looking ad with accurate information and good photos, it tends to attract serious, knowledgeable buyers.
Despite the occasional, highly publicized crimes involving Craigslist ads, sellers flock to online sites because they want to maximize the value of their used car quickly rather than trading it to a dealer for a lower price. While they may pocket more money, selling online also requires them to meet with strangers and, usually, arrange test drives, exchange cash and sign documents.
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Here are five tips to help you avoid falling prey to an online scammer:
1. Profile the buyer. If your buyer is legit — and reasonable — the sale will flow smoothly. How can you check out a potential buyer without tapping FBI databases? First, speak with the buyer on the phone. Many scammers hide behind bogus email accounts that provide no information about their whereabouts. Ask buyers to give you their phone number and set up a time to chat; the swindlers will quickly disappear.
Exchanging text messages about buying a used car is normal these days, but push for a quick phone chat. As you talk with the potential buyer, pay attention to your intuition. If the buyer makes any unusual requests or if anything makes you uncomfortable, just wait for another buyer.
2. Follow the money. Nearly all online scams stem from some unusual financing request from the buyer. In a popular scam, the fraudulent buyer sends you a check with an additional amount to ship the car. You pay for the shipping, send the car and then the check bounces.
Before agreeing to meet, tell the prospective buyer you accept only cash. If the buyer insists on paying with a cashier’s check, arrange to meet at the bank and watch as a teller handles the payment request.
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3. Don’t be overeager. Many scams work because of “the victim’s own eagerness to close a deal they think is sweet,” Scafidi says. So remember that real buyers will have questions about the car and will probably want to dicker. If you’re selling your car to someone out of the area, expect that person to arrange with a mobile service to inspect the car.
4. Meet in a “safe zone.” Because so many people are arranging physical meetings after connecting over the internet, Scafidi says police departments are creating “safe zones” with video surveillance. These are good places to meet prospective buyers.
Sadlier recommends that you, the seller, choose the meeting place. “You can take a lot of variables out of the equation by insisting on ground rules like that,” he says. “If you feel vulnerable and you’re not an automotive expert, bring a friend who is.”
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If no safe zone is available, meet in a well-lit public place with plenty of people around. Also, if you have any suspicions, ask to see the buyer’s driver’s license before letting him or her drive your car.
5. Avoid buyers with too many stories. Many scams begin with pleas for help or unusual requests such as to ship a car out of the country. In some cases, scammers pose as members of the military to gain sympathy and elicit feelings of patriotism. Avoid all such requests. As Scafidi says, “Slow down, ask questions and don’t become emotionally involved in the sale.”