The Internet has made used-car shopping more convenient for consumers, giving them a number of online outlets for locating a used vehicle. Unfortunately the fact that people with money frequent these sites can make you a target for crooks who want to take advantage of unsuspecting buyers.
Used-car scams can involve unlicensed independent dealers known as "curbstoners" and false online listings. We encountered both as part of our Debt-Free Car Project. We were drawn to their bait at first, but smelled something fishy and steered clear of the scams.
Meeting a Curbstoner
A curbstoner is a person who sells lots of cars on a regular basis, but has no designated place of business. He might not even have a dealer's license, which states typically require for people who have gone beyond selling their own car and have turned it into a business, however informal. Because a curbstoner has no license, he can operate under the radar and avoid any accountability for selling vehicles that are subpar, unsafe or have suspect titles. Some curbstoners have been known to roll back car odometers or pass off lemons as though they were in working order. While not all curbstoners are corrupt, it's best to steer clear of them just to be safe.
According to a case study released by stopcurbsstoning.com, most curbstoners prefer to concentrate on the low end of the used-car market, where resources are few and the buyer's willingness to turn to official channels for help is low. The study estimates that the average resale value of the vehicles sold by curbstoners was about $2,240.
We encountered one such seller when we went to look at a 1994 Toyota Corolla that had been advertised on Craigslist. It looked like a typical private-party ad. The seller agreed to meet us at a condo parking lot in a posh part of town where most people have private boats. It was a strange juxtaposition with the 18-year-old car he was selling.
The man, dressed in white track pants and sporting a Bluetooth earpiece, told us we could take the Corolla for a spin. The moment we fired it up, a metal-on-metal grinding noise greeted us. When asked what this was, the man replied, "It needs an engine mount." We took it for a lap around the parking lot and were underwhelmed; it needed much more than an engine mount. After we asked a few other questions, he finally came clean.
"I'm not the original owner," he said. "I'm a dealer." We thanked him for his time and left.
Later that day, we received a call back about a late 1990s Infiniti in which we were interested. The voice on the phone sounded awfully familiar; it was the Corolla curbstoner. We didn't look at his second car.
Used-Car Internet Scams
When we replied to a couple of ads that seemed too good to be true, we realized we'd stumbled on two Internet car-scammers. We saw a 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid with 112,000 miles on eBay classifieds for about $2,900. The car was worth twice the asking price. This is the e-mail we got when we requested more information on the car, complete with its odd punctuation and weird syntax:
"First of all I want to inform you that the car is now in Bismarck, North Dakota and it is crated at the shipping company as I left it, when I've moved here 2 weeks ago, because I've found a better job. I do not know too much about this car, i don't even have a driver license, the car belonged to my husband, but he suffered an accident and the car it's now under my name. I can let you know that it has a clean US title, it has no scratches, dents or rust, it has 112,223 miles and it runs perfectly. Anyway I have all the receipts for all the work that has been made on it. The total price that you'll have to pay for this car is 2870 US, price that includes shipping taxes and insurance. I wish that we make this deal also with eBay's protection. If you agree with moving forward with the deal through eBay please email me your full name, shipping address and eBay user name. As soon as I receive these information from you I will forward them to eBay along with the rest of the details in order for them to open a case regarding our deal. I am waiting for your email as soon as possible."
This didn't sound right. There's no such thing as a "US title." States issue titles. Why did it say "2870 US?" Do they use some currency other than U.S. dollars in North Dakota? It sounded as if the person behind all this was in another country. Plus, they wanted us to buy a used car stored in a warehouse, sight unseen. No thanks.
The following day we received an e-mail from a woman who claimed to be selling a 2002 Mini Cooper that we also found on the eBay classifieds. In part, it read:
"The car is priced to sell quickly and the final price that I'm asking for it is $2,709 including shipping and handling costs. My husband died in Iraq 3 months ago and me and my daughter decided to sell the house and move to my sister's. The car reminds us very much of my husband but we finally understood that we have to move on with our lives. Although my husband will have his place in our hearts forever. I can't afford to take days off my work for this sale so I'm trying to sell it online."
While this response didn't have the same foreign feel as the e-mail regarding the Civic, it was very similar in other ways. Both sellers claimed to be women whose husbands were no longer around. Both were quoting a price that included shipping and handling costs. Transporting a car is usually the buyer's responsibility. Why would someone cut into her already low profit to provide shipping?
The lesson we learned was a simple one: If a car sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As Craigslist.com says, a consumer can avoid most Internet scams by dealing locally with people he/she can meet in person. Finally, in both cases, the scammers wanted us to send them some type of personal information about our eBay account. Avoid sending out any personal information unless you are in the final stages of purchasing a vehicle.
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.