How to Avoid Curbstoning

By Chris Brewer
Last Updated 12/09/2015

You’ve been searching for a reliable used vehicle for a while. Countless hours spent on the Internet perusing classifieds and numerous trips to local dealerships have left you empty-handed. You’ve even asked around at work to see if anyone is selling their car, or knows someone who might have something for sale.

Your search has led to some prospects, but the pricing was out of reach or the vehicle sold so quickly that you missed out. Perhaps you’re a little worn out and tired, what seemed like an exciting purchase is turning into a lot of work.

Whether you are at the end of your rope or just getting started, the daunting task of spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on a used vehicle can be overwhelming. When you reach a place of desperation, uncertainty or impatience, it can be easy to rush to purchase a vehicle that pops up online and is priced competitively without doing the important research necessary to make sure you are actually buying what is being advertised.

One of the easiest pitfalls to end up in is purchasing a used vehicle from an individual who is a curbstoner.

If you just read that last sentence and thought, “What in the world is a curbstoner?” you should keep reading. Understanding this illegal practice and the risks involved can help you avoid being ripped off on your next used vehicle purchase.

What is curbstoning?

Curbstoning is the act of selling used vehicles under the false pretense of being the car’s owner in order to evade city or state regulations imposed on authorized automotive dealers.

Flipping cars is big business. Once you understand the system and have some capital, it isn’t difficult to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in a very short time. Of course, in order to protect consumers, car dealerships face great scrutiny from local and state governments. Rules must be followed, promises must be kept and the vehicles they offer for sale must meet certain criteria. Operating a legal, well-established dealership requires the business to maintain a great reputation and clear sales records, all while keeping up to date with permits and taxes owed to the state and federal government. Reputable dealers are not in it for the fast dollar; they plan on selling cars for years to come and are willing to pay the cost to do so.

On the other hand, curbstoners work in the shadows to make the maximum amount of profit on each sale by cutting corners. These tactics include not obtaining the necessary insurance, licenses and permits, and pocketing money that should rightly go to city, state and federal government. It isn’t unusual for a successful curbstoner to sell three or four cars in the span of a few weeks by listing cars under the “for sale by owner” or “private party” sections of online classified listings. They may even invent elaborate excuses to explain why they are selling a car that they don’t have any records or history for, including the title.

“It’s my failing mother’s car,” or “My son is away at college and he asked me to help him sell his pride and joy.” The lies seem plausible, but a curbstoner will use a story to help them sell the car and make a few bucks.

So how can you protect yourself as a consumer from this unscrupulous practice? My hope is that the information in this guide will help steer clear from being the victim of curbstoning. These simple suggestions can greatly reduce the chances of falling prey to this unsavory scam.

Buy From a Reputable Dealer

The simplest way to avoid curbstoning is to buy a used vehicle from a reputable dealership. An established dealer has literally paid the price to be in business. Licenses, permits and insurance do not come cheap and when coupled with the costs of maintaining an attractive facility. As a result, an established dealership has a lot to lose and will usually go the extra mile to make sure that customers are satisfied.

A used vehicle being sold at a dealer typically has a higher price tag than one being offered by an individual, but that additional cost is often warranted. The majority of used vehicles sold at licensed dealerships are refurbished and come with the assurance that the vehicle you are buying has a clean, non-salvaged title. Most great dealerships will add the extra security of providing a CARFAX Vehicle History Report, which details easy-to-understand evidence that your potential purchase is free of flood damage, an odometer rollback or other dishonest practices like vehicle identification number (VIN) cloning.

However, my goal is not to deter you from purchasing a car from an honest individual. My hope is to provide you with the tools that you need to avoid turning over your hard-earned cash to a dishonest seller.

Investigate the Seller and the Listing

Odds are you found the used car you are interested in through an online listing. The Internet is an incredible resource for the used car shopper. You can check out thousands of listings instantly from the comfort of your own home.

Of course, the Internet’s convenience also attracts scam artists. Internet-based classifieds are typically free of charge, and listing a vehicle can be an automated process that’s relatively easy for a curbstoner.

Less common than in the past, you may have spotted a used vehicle strategically parked at the curb with a “for sale” sign taped to the windshield. The term “curbstoning” originated from vehicles that are offered in this fashion.

Fortunately, the Internet also provides an excellent first line of self-defense. Searching for evidence of curbstoning can be as easy as doing a simple online search for the phone number or email address that’s associated with the vehicle. If the search reveals multiple vehicles for sale with the same contact information, it may be a good sign to move on.

If the contact information is unique to the vehicle, there is a good chance that you are dealing with an honest, well-intentioned owner, but scammers have caught on to this trick too and often use multiple email addresses and phone numbers with each vehicle listing. This can be trickier to discover, but if you see similar ads clustered on classified listing websites you might want to contact a few and see if patterns arise. For example, call each number and see if the same person answers.

If you call an individual and they ask which vehicle you are inquiring about, consider it a red flag. I know of instances where downsizing meant listing both of the family cars before a move, and I have had car collector friends find “the one” and need to sell three or four vehicles to finance the sale, but more often than not this simple question is a tell-tale sign that you’ve encountered a curbstoner. If you feel uncomfortable, politely thank them for their time and hang up.

Buying a car from an individual can and should be a wonderful experience; if you feel uneasy I have found it is usually better to err on the side of caution and move on. I’m not advocating universal distrust. I have encountered wonderful people while car shopping, many of whom have become friends through the process. Just keep in mind that there is no reason to settle. It’s your hard-earned money, and you get to choose who you want to give it to.

If the listing seems legitimate and you feel comfortable when communicating with the seller, obtain the vehicle’s 17-character VIN and run a CARFAX Report. Use the report to chronicle the vehicle’s previous locations and owners, and take note if it has been in any significant accidents or floods. The information provided by the CARFAX will also guide you when you communicate with the seller. Just keep in mind that they have access to the same report, and could create an elaborate series of lies and excuses to cover up any inconsistencies.

Ask Questions and Require Evidence

Even before meeting with the seller to visually inspect the vehicle, take a few minutes to ask these pointed questions:

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

We’re not necessarily looking for original ownership here; the goal is to establish a history associating the vehicle with the seller.

If the individual claims they are selling the car for a friend or loved one, ask them for the same details. For example, you could ask, “How long has your aunt owned the 2009 Dodge Charger?” Ask the same general questions and provide them with time to get the answers if they need it. Although it may sound a little suspicious, try not to get carried away and make assumptions. Many families have the designated “car person” whom they go to when they need help with maintenance, repairs and buying and selling. This person may serve family members and friends as a knowledgeable go-between. If you feel comfortable moving forward, afford them a little time to get back to you with the requested information.

Now is the time when that CARFAX Vehicle History Report is invaluable. Check the seller’s answers against your report. Are they congruent? Remember, they may be armed with the same report and inventing an elaborate tale. But more often than not, if the timeline and evidence presented by the seller coincides with the information on the report you can feel confident that you are indeed buying the vehicle from an actual owner and not a would-be car salesman trying to work around the system.


Take the Same Steps with Every Used Car

The seller checks out and you feel comfortable with the vehicle’s history, now what?

Before you hand over your money you will want to make sure that the vehicle you are buying is actually worth the investment. There are many problems with curbstoning, but the biggest danger is that you may end up buying a car that is unsafe to operate. Money comes and goes, but personal safety is a matter of life and death. A thorough inspection of the vehicle by a competent mechanic can provide the assurance that you need before making the purchase.

If you are knowledgeable about the vehicle you are purchasing, you might be able to complete the pre-purchase inspection yourself. Something to keep in mind is that while your CARFAX Vehicle History Report may reveal when a vehicle was damaged and repaired, it will not attest to the quality of the work. A professional inspection can help reveal shoddy repairs or confirm that the problems were addressed sufficiently.

Don’t Let the Stress Steal Your Joy

Buying a used vehicle can be stressful. Many of my friends and family rank it somewhere between doctor’s visits and public speaking. But buying a new-to-you car can also be an exciting, joy-filled experience. Your diligence will yield a car, truck, minivan or SUV that provides you and your family years of trouble-free ownership.