FBI Issues Online Car Sales Scam Alert

Watch for these online car sales red flags: Internet Scambusters #812

Fraudulent online car sales are costing Americans more than $15 million a year and have prompted almost 27,000 complaints to law enforcement in the past few years.

Yet, by following a few simple precautions, you can eliminate the risk of being caught out by fake buyers and sellers.

In this week’s issue, we’ll explain how the scam works and what the FBI says you should do to avoid it.

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FBI Issues Online Car Sales Scam Alert


An alarming rise in online car sale scams has prompted the FBI to issue a new warning about the dangers.

With fake vehicle sales costing Americans around $15 million a year, the FBI and its partners in the Internet Crime Complaints Center (IC3) have issued guidance on how to avoid being duped.

Between mid-2014 and last December, IC3 received almost 27,000 complaints about fraudulent sales of non-existent cars, RVs and boats, with victims handing over in excess of $54 million during the period.

The scam usually starts with an online ad with photos and contact details for the supposed seller — either a phone number or email address.

The vehicle is priced well below normal market values, with the seller claiming a special reason for the low price, the urgency of the sale and sometimes a reason why he or she won’t be able to meet the victim.

For instance, the “seller” may claim to be in the military and about to be deployed or that the car is part of a divorce settlement. Or they often say the car belongs to someone in the family who has recently died.

“The criminal makes the fraud appear legitimate,” says the FBI, “by deceptively claiming partnership with reputable companies, such as eBay, and using the names of these third parties with whom they have no actual association.”

Typically, the scammer may also claim that the sale is covered by some sort of buyer protection program and will even go as far as sending a fake email from the supposed protection service.

In line with recent trends, the crook asks for payment via gift cards or prepaid debit cards. Once he gets his hands on these — or the digital numbers from them — that’s usually the last the victim hears.

The key to the success of this trick is that the would-be buyer never meets the scammer and never inspects the vehicle, which is usually supposedly way out of town. Without a meeting or an inspection, the buyer is acting on blind faith, which turns out to be misplaced.

FBI Tips

If you want to buy stuff online, the first rule is to make sure you know who you truly are buying from and that they genuinely have the item they claim to be selling.

Some other tips from the FBI:

  • Watch out for bargain prices. They’re a red flag.
  • Research the “seller” using any information they’ve provided about themselves including email address and phone number. If you can’t find them, beware!
  • If a seller won’t meet with you or allow you to inspect the item they’re selling, it’s almost certainly a scam.
  • With cars, request the vehicle’s Vehicle Identity Number (VIN), current license plate, and the name of the registered owner. Then check them out.

“If you are suspicious or unsure about an email that claims to be from a legitimate business, locate the business online and contact it directly,” IC3 says. “Criminals take extra effort to disguise themselves and may include familiar or recognizable words in their email address or domain name.”

Fake Buyers Too

Of course, online car sale scams work in both directions: You can also fall victim to a fraudulent buyer.

These crooks have been operating on Facebook recently, targeting legitimate sellers using the social network’s Marketplace service.

Again, they often claim to be in the military, saying they’re about to be posted and urgently need to buy the vehicle. They say they’ll pay via an online service and ask for the car to be shipped to a port transit area.

The seller then receives a fake email purporting to come from the payment service, usually PayPal. Often, the seller fails to check their account before arranging the shipment.

The vehicle then will be shipped abroad and all traces of it will disappear.

Don’t fall for this. Anyone offering to buy this way, sight unseen and with a requirement that the vehicle should be shipped to a port, is almost certainly a scammer.

If you get approached in this way by a supposed buyer, make sure you confirm their identity beyond all reasonable doubt.

And any time you receive an online payment notification, independently check your account to be sure the money’s really there.

If you do fall victim to an online car sale or purchase scam, it’s important to file a complaint with IC3. There’s a complaints button and description of the information needed on the home page.

Alert of the Week

Do you use the Google Chrome web browser and occasionally download extensions that are supposed to streamline the way it works?

If so, beware of requests that originate on Facebook inviting you to view a YouTube video.

The request says you need to download a particular Chrome extension to watch the video. But instead, the extension steals confidential information from your computer.

Always be suspicious of requests to install a special video viewer. They’re nearly all scams leading to malware.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!