That Car You’re About to Buy Online May Not Exist

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It's incredibly risky to purchase a car you can't see and test drive — especially because there aren't many consumer protections in place.

Buying a car online sight unseen seems like a terrible idea. You can’t judge the condition from a few photos or a phone call.

Yet last year, scammers ripped off online car buyers for more than $64 million, the National White Collar Crime Center says. Every age group got taken, with complaints last year reaching 3,500. There were significantly fewer complaints from those under 18 and those over 60.

The big reason people fell for it? Price. “Even professionals in the automotive industry look for deals online and are not immune to fraud,” says CNBC, which goes on to recount the story of Tom Souter.

Souter, who runs a used car business in Texas and appears on CNBC’s show “The Car Chasers,” found a 1957 Chevy Bel Air Coupe available on eBay for $22,000. (Here’s one that sold for about $58,000 in March.) The ad and the seller seemed credible, and he researched the VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number, of the car. Because of its age, it didn’t have a standard 17-digit number and he couldn’t get a comprehensive report, but it did show up as a 2-door hardtop Chevy coupe. Sounds right.

Of course, it wasn’t. CNBC says Souter paid for the car and found out it didn’t exist. The seller was a scammer who just stole the VIN from somebody else’s expired eBay listing and pulled together some photos. Souter lucked out — eBay’s buyer protection policies reimbursed him most of the money, $20,000. But many sites don’t offer that, CNBC says.

There’s nothing wrong with using the Internet to research used cars. Sure, a lot of sellers stretch the truth about condition, but that’s why you go check them out and haggle. Watch the video below for our advice on shopping for reliable used cars:

How cheap would a car have to be for you to buy it without first getting a close-up look? Comment below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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