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Buying a car online? How to spot fake vehicle ads

Scammers post pictures and descriptions of cars used in other ads, and then ask interested buyers to wire money to hold the vehicle. But the car is non existent.

ST. LOUIS — Its been a tough year for the auto industry and finally it's getting better.

Vehicle sales are starting to pick up to meet demand. 

The I-Team finds that demand creates the perfect opportunity for scammers to intercept your hard earned cash.

Patricia Zamboni knows her time to see the world is running out. She has Diabetic retinopathy. 

"My eyesight is failing. We just wanted to  take in the sights of the country, before I lost my eyesight completely," said Zamboni, over Overland. 

Determined to live out her one last dream, Zamboni began looking on craigslist for an RV that she and her husband could travel the country in.

It wasn't hard to find a deal.

The deal of a lifetime 

"I was a little leery because it was such a good deal. It was a full size RV. The pictures were in perfect shape and she only wanted $1,000 for it," said Zamboni. She says she had lengthy email exchanges with the seller. They even chatted about the little town in Kentucky they claimed to be selling from. 

To secure the purchase, all Zamboni needed to do was put some money down to hold the RV. The seller sent her a link to what appeared to be an eBay escrow website.

"When they got back with me, they said I needed to go get $1,000 in eBay cards," said Zamboni." I went back to her and she says, 'well, you know, they're handling it. That's how we have to get the money'."

Scammers and Imposters  

"They're impersonating eBay," said Steve Baker, Investigator with the Better Business Bureau. "You're really sending your money to the scammers and there is no vehicles ever delivered."

Baker has been warning the public about this scam for years and he's the author of a BBB study into online car scams. 

"They tell the consumer, 'well you're protected you just send your mind is third party escrow company and they'll hold the money until you've got the car and had a chance to take a look at it'," said Baker. "But the escrow companies are fakes that don't really exist there were, I think, a couple of dozen other than that were supposedly in Springfield, Missouri, actually, at one point."

How to spot a fake vehicle ad

Here's what these fake ads have in common:

  • The price is too good to be true
  • The pictures are often stolen 
  • And you'll be asked for gift cards, or a bank transfer to hold the vehicle
  • You can't come and see the vehicle. COVID-19 provides the perfect excuse

"Not just cars and RVs. We've also seen it in skid steers, farm equipment. Food trucks, all terrain vehicles jet skis," said Baker. "Average loss is usually around $5400." 

As for Zamboni, she sent another $600 in gift cards for what she thought was transport insurance before she realized she'd been scammed.

"I was able to get contacted with eBay. They explained that that wasn't them," said Zamboni. "$1600 dollars...When you're on social security, you know, is a lot of money."

Scammers took more than Zamboni's money. They destroyed her dream 

"We had a little bit of money and we just wanted to to fulfill one of our dreams and and it was just snatched out from under us."

International origins

This online car scam can be traced to an active crime ring in Romania. Since 2011, hundreds of Romanian scammers have been arrested. 

The U.S. Embassy in Romania posted a warning about fraud emanating from that country, stating:

“Economic crime is a growing problem in Romania. Due to the high level of computer skills in this country cybercrimes [including internet fraud, credit card fraud, auction site fraud, and hacking/extortion schemes] are occurring on an increasing basis. American companies and citizens are very often the victims of this type of crime... It is important that you save any emails or documents that were generated as a result of the fraud. You should also notify the relevant credit card companies forthwith, and make immediate efforts to retrieve your goods or funds if they have not yet been delivered.”

According to the BBB, another group that engages in offering nonexistent vehicles online are scammers centered in Cameroon, an African country that shares a border with Nigeria. These scammers are widely involved in selling fictitious puppies and other pets online, the subject of an earlier BBB study. Both petscams.com, which helps victims with that scam, and Artists Against 419 (AA419), a group of volunteers that track the activities of scammers, confirm that the same groups engage in car scams. A website called scam.directory collects examples of such frauds.

How to avoid the scam

Shoppers should be cautious of the following situations:

  • Sellers who want to move the transaction from one platform to another (for example, from Craigslist to eBay Motors).
  • Sellers who claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company's site.
  • Sellers who push for speedy completion of the transaction and request payments via quick wire transfer payment systems.
  • Sellers who refuse to meet in person, or refuse to allow the buyer to physically inspect the vehicle before the purchase.
  • Transactions in which the seller and vehicle are in different locations. Criminals often claim to have been transferred for work reasons, deployed by the military, or moved because of a family circumstance, and could not take the vehicle with them.
  • Vehicles advertised at well below their market value. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

If you have witnessed this behavior or fallen victim to this type of scam, please file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, www.ic3.gov.

eBay Motors also had the following detailed advice:

Common warning signs

  1. Vehicle is advertised well below what it is worth.
    • Know the approximate value of the vehicle you are interested in buying by using trusted resources on the internet such as Kelley Blue Book or Nada Guides.
    • If it appears too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Criminals will make the vehicle very appealing and tempt you with a price you don't want to miss out on.

  3. Seller pushes for speedy completion of the transaction and requests payment through a service or method that can put the money in their hands quickly.
  4. Common payment methods used in legitimate purchases are cash in person, credit card, PayPal, Bill Me Later, money order, cashier's check, financial loans, or personal check.

    Escrow accounts can also be used to securely transfer funds to the seller. eBay recommends using our approved escrow service with Escrow.com. Learn more about using an escrow service.

    Direct bank transfers and wire payments may also be requested by the Seller. Please proceed with caution with these payment methods and remember it is always a good idea to inspect the vehicle in person before sending any money.

  5. You cannot meet the seller or look at the vehicle prior to sending a payment. The seller may be very polite and apologetic, but cannot meet you due to a special circumstance, such as:
    • Seller is being/has been deployed by the military
    • Seller is going through a divorce (or getting married)
    • Death in the family or a health issue of a relative
    • They work on a boat or are out of town for an extended period of time
    • Received through inheritance and not needed
  6. Legitimate sellers are motivated and will make every effort to meet with all potential buyers immediately. If the seller cannot meet, they will designate another person to show the vehicle on their behalf.

  7. Private seller offers free shipping of the vehicle to you. Criminals may tell you they have access to transportation resources, possibly through their employer or because they are in the military and can coordinate the delivery for you (even if it's cross country).
    • Similar to being priced below what it is worth, this typically is a tactic used to entice potential buyers
  8. On eBay, as the buyer, you typically are responsible for picking up the vehicle or hiring a shipping company. Some eBay Motors Dealers may offer free shipping on our website.

    To determine if the listing is from a Private Seller or Dealer please refer to the field labeled "For Sale By" within the description tab under the Item specifics section.

  9. You found the vehicle on another website and the seller tells you eBay will protect the transaction, such as:
    • Extend eBay warranty, eBay guarantee, or a buyer's protection plan
    • Offer a return policy in case you are not satisfied (like a 'cooling off' period)
    • Process the payment directly or hold/secure the funds
  10. eBay provides Vehicle Purchase Protection only for transactions that start and are completed on the eBay Motors website (other terms and conditions apply). In addition, eBay does NOT hold payments or extend protection for non-eBay conducted transactions.

    The only way to buy a vehicle on eBay is by logging into your eBay account with a user ID/email address and password. One of the following needs to be true:

    • You were the winning bidder on the auction
    • You clicked 'Buy it now'
    • You sent a best offer and the seller accepted it
  11. In these cases, the item will always appear in the purchase history of your eBay account.

  12. Criminals want to lure you into feeling safe. They take extra effort to disguise their websites and emails to look like they are from eBay or associated with eBay, when they are not. See Example
    • Emails have poor grammar, broken English or have other distinguishing errors (e.g., misspelled words, incorrect punctuation)
    • Communications may be overly formal or sound very mechanical. The responses are not personalized and could include general terms like 'Dear Sir' and 'Good Day'
    • Emails are not sent from the 'eBay.com' domain. Criminals may have a recognizable word in their email name or as part of their domain name, such as 'eBay' or 'VPP' (e.g., eBay@vppinsurance.com) but these are NOT sent from eBay.
    • Email contains false information like invoice numbers, transaction case IDs, or VPP case ID #s
  13. If you are suspicious about an email that claims to be from eBay, sign in to My eBay and click the Messages tab. If you do NOT see the same message "From eBay", the email is likely fake. To report a fake email, forward it to spoof@ebay.com

    To date, more than 5 million customers have purchased vehicles through eBay. eBay works hard to create a safe marketplace, but criminals still may attempt to exploit you. Please be cautious with all online transactions and research the seller and the item you are intending to purchase carefully before making any payments.

    If you are still unsure if the vehicle being offered is legitimate, contact eBay Customer Service.