Curbstoning is selling a car that doesn’t belong to you, or a private party who buys and sells cars like a dealer, but without a license. This practice is illegal and goes around many of the safeguards that are in place to protect used car buyers.
Many cars are bought from private sellers each year. Only a fraction of these are curbstoners, but the victims of curbstoning often end up making expensive repairs to a vehicle because they were led to believe that it had fewer miles, or major issues were not disclosed or were hidden by cosmetic work.
When you buy a car from a private seller, here are some ways to protect yourself from curbstoners:
- Ask to see the driver’s license of the seller along with the car’s title and/or registration. If the name on the title doesn’t match the name on the license, don’t buy it.
- Get a detailed CARFAX Vehicle History Report to identify if the car has any reported salvage history, odometer fraud or flood damage. It can also show recent, frequent or excessive title transfers that may contradict the seller’s story.
- Take the car to a trusted mechanic. A professional inspection can uncover weld marks, water spots and uneven tire treads – all clues to a potentially unsafe vehicle.
- Check the phone number. Make sure the same phone number appears in multiple ads, and that you have a way to get back in touch with the car seller, not just a cell phone number. Curbstoners often try to change their locations to avoid being caught.
- Be skeptical if the price seems too good to be true. If something feels wrong, don’t be afraid to walk away.
Herta Soman learned about curbstoning the hard way when she fell for a curbstoner’s story and wound up paying $15,000 for a ’97 Honda only to find out the warranties were void. The vehicle had been totaled nearly three years earlier.
“I was angry. I was in shock,” said Soman after discovering through CARFAX that the car she purchased from a private seller had once been salvaged. “I was speechless. I feel like I’m driving a fraud.”
Sadly, Soman is not alone. Law enforcement officials estimate that many of the cars advertised in classified ads or sold at the curb may be curbstoned vehicles. Curbstoners often sell vehicles reputable dealers won’t touch because of hidden problems, such as salvage titles, that can affect both safety and value.
“Unfortunately, dishonesty sometimes is very profitable,” laments John Creel, a Consumer Investigator. Creel has been busting curbstoners for years. He explains how this scam works. Curbstoners pick up bad cars, “cars that may have spun odometers or salvage [titles]” for example, from junkyards or wholesale auctions, then pass them off to unsuspecting consumers as quality family cars. By law, a dealer must disclose if a vehicle has a salvage title, or a known inaccurate odometer reading.
“You don’t tell him you got it a week ago… you cleaned it up and now you’re selling it,” reveals a former curbstoner caught by Creel who requested anonymity. “It’s possible even to hide the fact that a car has been totaled by registering it or changing the title in another state,” he adds.
Consumer safety advocates say you can’t be too careful when buying a used car today since poorly rebuilt wrecks are more likely to fail in the event of another crash. It is especially dangerous when the driver has no idea the vehicle has been in a major accident before.
“Your chances of being in a serious auto crash in your lifetime are 1 out of 2,” says Jackie Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Those are very high odds, so you want to make sure when you’re buying a used car that it’s not only going to provide the transportation you need, but is also going to provide you and your family with a safe driving environment.”
Creel always recommends that consumers do their homework before buying any pre-owned vehicle, especially from a private seller. “The first thing you want to do is get a CARFAX Report,” he says.
Herta Soman, who, because of a curbstoner, got stuck with a now failing rebuilt wreck echoes Creel’s sentiment. “I wish I would have done that prior to purchasing my car, it could have saved me a lot of grief, and a lot of money.”