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How to Avoid Curbstoning

Photo illustration, man being mislead by false advertisement

Smart Tips to Avoid Scams When Buying a Used Car

Imagine finding a car or truck for sale online priced hundreds – maybe even thousands – less than a nearly identical make and model you saw elsewhere. Have you scored an amazing deal, or are you about to be scammed?

Whether you’re just starting a used-car search or are becoming increasingly impatient to find the right vehicle, a common mistake is purchasing a used vehicle from a seller known as a “curbstoner.”

What Is Curbstoning?

Curbstoning is selling a used vehicle under the pretense of being the car’s owner when you aren’t, in order to evade city or state regulations imposed on authorized automotive dealers (called “curbstoning” because the seller in these types of shady deals historically conducted the sale in a parking lot, or with the car parked curbside on a street).

Basically, the trick is to use a public location that’s impossible to trace to a business or residential address. Legitimate car dealerships and honest private sellers will have an easily identifiable address.

Granted, a legitimate private seller might choose a public location to meet up and discuss a vehicle or arrange a test drive, but there’s no reason they should refuse to mention their home address – after all, this is basic information that’s likely to be on the car’s paperwork.

A curbstoner operates far outside the bounds of dealerships and truthful private sellers. Their simple goal is to make fast cash by avoiding federal and state taxes and fees, not to mention skirting rules and regulations that are there to protect used-car buyers should something go wrong.

Vehicles Targeted by Curbstoners

So, what type of vehicle might a curbstoner try to hoist off on an unsuspecting buyer? Here are a few examples:

Vehicles like these can cause all sorts of financial and legal trouble to the buyer, not to mention a risk to their safety. A car that seems cosmetically solid might be hiding shoddy repairs or major mechanical problems – things curbstoners often conceal in order to make a quick sale.

Without necessary ownership paperwork and proof of a legitimate sale, a buyer would have little to no legal recourse once the deal was done and problems began to surface.

Car dealership aerial view

A good way to avoid curbstoners is to buy a used car from a dealership.

How to Avoid a Curbstoner

Many curbstoners have more than one vehicle for sale at any given time, so spotting a series of eerily similar listings of curiously inexpensive used cars is an easy giveaway that something is wrong.

Spotting this type of dubious used-car deal can be accomplished by following a few simple tips:

  • Don’t let missing paperwork slide. The car’s title should never be unaccounted for during a sale, and the name on the title should match the name of the person selling the car or truck.
  • Ask for the car’s service history. If it’s missing or substantially incomplete, it may be smart to walk away from the deal.
  • Get a Carfax Report. Ask for the vehicle identification number (VIN) and get a Carfax Vehicle History Report before any money is exchanged. There’s no reason an honest seller won’t agree to do this. A Carfax Report can show you a car’s service history, branded title, open NHTSA recalls, and more.
  • Buy your car from a reputable dealer. Carfax’s Dealer Directory can help you find the top-rated dealers in your area. The Better Business Bureau is also a great resource for finding top-rated dealerships.

A savvy curbstoner will be ready to answer all sorts of questions, often with elaborate stories to explain away missing information or any uncertainties about the vehicle’s condition. Typical responses from a curbstoner might sound like this:

  • “It’s a sick relative’s car.”
  • “My kid is away at college and asked me to help sell their car.”
  • “I just moved and some paperwork went missing, but everything is OK with the car.”
  • “I’m in a rush and other people are very interested, we need to finalize the deal right here and now.”

Just like when you’re buying a new car, it’s vital to be patient during the purchase process of a used car. Remember to ask questions and never get pushed into handing over money unless you’re completely comfortable with the deal. Also, don’t fall in love with a car; even if the vehicle ticks all the right boxes, there are more used cars out there to consider should something suddenly sound fishy.

Ask Questions & Require Information

Before meeting with a seller to visually inspect and test-drive a vehicle, take time to ask these important questions:

  • How long have you owned the vehicle?
  • Why are you selling it?
  • Do you have maintenance records? If not, why?
  • Has the vehicle been in an accident? If so, when and where was it repaired?
  • Do you have the vehicle’s title? Is your name on it? If not, who holds the title and why?

You don’t have to play automotive Sherlock Holmes and assume every used car out there is a danger lurking in the shadows. By and large, the majority of used cars for sale will be presented with this information intact. If a seller asks for a little time to locate any missing documents – like service history records – be willing to be flexible.

It’s not out of the question that a legitimate seller will require extra time to pull everything together. Just make certain no money changes hands before everything is accounted for and any questions are cleared up.

Use the Same Steps With Every Used Car

A deal that’s too good to be true, a selling location notable for its anonymity, missing paperwork, a non-existent title, a seller’s refusal to allow their car to be inspected by a qualified mechanic – the list goes on. If your car-shopping alarm bells aren’t ringing right now, please go back and start re-reading this advice from the beginning!

Even if a seller comes recommended by family or friends, you need to make an informed purchase, accounting for every piece of information and all the necessary paperwork. After all, buying a vehicle is a significant expense. You’re entitled to ask questions and get answers that don’t come with endless caveats or convoluted explanations.

Next Steps

Carfax has tools to help you find the right used car, from our used car buying checklist to our Vehicle History Reports, as well as our used car listings pages.

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com