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Bent Screw. photo by Steven Deplo

How to Buy a Car Online and not Get Screwed

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You won’t believe how many times I hear about used car shoppers getting screwed buying online. Hard to believe that it still even happens, but it does…ALL THE TIME.

Every used car buyer wants their online shopping experience to be relatively pain-free. For you first-time buyers especially, it should be an exciting and emotional time…You are buying your first car after all! Think of all the things you’re going to do and places you’re going to go in that car! The last thing you want to worry about is someone trying to rip you off.

But when you’re talking about a transaction that involves $16,000 on average, there’s going to be a slew of deceptive sellers just looking to get their hands on your hard-earned cash.

The stories are usually similar and go something like this: You go to Craigslist or some other place online because you think you’ll pay less buying from a perfect stranger than a dealer. Ok, that’s possible. You fall in love with a used car that you get for “such an amazing deal!” After a short time, the car starts developing problems and falling apart. The seller has since vanished and is unreachable, and now you’re stuck paying for a worthless heap.

Congratulations, you’ve just gotten screwed on how to buy a car online. But you’re not alone.

Con Men Love the Web

con man
He’s looking for another person to con. Image by Dave Parker.

Like many other aspects of consumers’ lives, car shopping has largely become Internet-based. In fact, DMEautomotive says that 4 out 5 people now use the Internet to buy cars online. Google says that more than a third uses their smart device to conduct online research. For con men, that means ample opportunities to peddle their junk or even stolen cars easily to you and other unsuspecting buyers.

Take this example from the Facebook page of San Francisco TV station KRON 4:

An Antioch man lost $13,700 when he purchased a car from a seller on Craigslist which turned out to be stolen. The victim, who would like to remain anonymous, paid cash for the car on Sunday. When he went to register the vehicle he was informed that the license plate and the title are fakes and that the Chrysler 300 is registered to a company. Antioch police confirmed that the car was reported stolen and confiscated the car Monday. The victim took photos of the car and the suspect. He contacted KRON 4 in the hopes that publishing the photos of the car and the suspect will help find the alleged scam artist.

Mind Where You Buy a Car

Craigslist takes most of the heat when it comes to online used car scams. But let’s be honest here – there are lots of other places online where people risk getting ripped off. So first, think about the sites you plan to visit. Dishonest sellers bank on used car buyers thinking most about price and shopping at places where vehicle history information isn’t readily available. My suggestion: Carfax.com now has used cars for sale, so start there. You’ll save yourself at least 40 bucks because you get free a Carfax Report with every car that’s listed for sale, plus all the cars are from reputable dealers.

Check Out the Seller

Knowing who you’re buying from is equally important as what you’re buying. No matter if it’s a dealer or individual, do your homework to learn as much as you can about the person trying to sell you that car. For example, there’s a nasty scam out there called curbstoning, which involves illegal dealers posing as private sellers, sometimes selling hundreds of used cars with all sorts of problems online. One tip to avoid them: check the phone number of the seller to see if it’s associated with other cars for sale. If it is, you’ve probably found a curbstoner and should to steer clear of them. With dealers, take the time to check out ratings and customer reviews on Dealerrater.com or Yelp. Remember this: simply asking the seller questions can help separate the good guys from the bad guys.

For Gosh Sakes, Take a Test Drive

This is just mind-blowing – as many as one in six car buyers chose not to take a test drive before purchasing. C’mon, really?! Do yourself a favor; never buy a used car without first seeing it and going on a test drive. It’ll help ensure that a) the car actually exists and the seller you’ve contacted has it and b) that you’re comfortable driving the car. The test drive also gives you an opportunity to look over the car yourself and take note of any possible red flags, especially when driving. In addition, take the car to a mechanic to have it inspected and get a Carfax Vehicle History Report.

Beware of Cash Only or Wire Transfer Transactions

Funny Money
Don’t roll the dice or get tricked. Image by Matthew Dewaal

One of the classic cons involving used car transactions is the seller insisting on you wiring money via services like Western Union or Moneygram or accepting only cash. Three words: DON’T DO IT. Here’s one example of why:

“I had been looking for a couple of weeks and thought I found my dream car,” writes online shopper Laurie McClintock from California. “It was located in Van Nuys being sold by a private party and the seller was asking for $8,200 cash. My husband went to the bank to get a cashier’s check, called the seller who insisted upon CASH. Red flags went up and I decided to try Carfax. I purchased a package and ran the VIN and the car was a “salvage title.” I would have been ripped off had it not been for Carfax.”

Let’s recap with a quick checklist you can use next time you’re in the market for a used car and, like almost everyone else, go online to start your search.

  • Get your financing in order first. It’s better to know how much a used car is going to cost you every month on a loan. Learn our 5 Secrets to Getting the Best Car Loan Rates.
  • Shop at places where vehicle history information is included with the cars listed for sale, such as Carfax.com. It’ll save you some bucks and give you some added peace of mind.
  • It’s ok to buy from an individual, but ask questions and make sure their story holds water. Or, shop with dealers you’ve reviewed online.
  • Do these three things to help buy a safe, reliable used car: test drive, Get the Carfax Report and a mechanic’s inspection.
  • There’s absolutely no reason to wire money or pay in cash because the seller insists. It’s your dough, buy on your terms or shop with someone else.
  • Beware “Too good to be true” deals. They rarely exist, plus the lowest price doesn’t necessarily mean the best deal. So shop around.

Featured Image by Steven Depolo.

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