Most car shoppers use the web in their research or buying process, and it usually goes off without a hitch. But there are shadowy corners of the internet that harbor scammers and crooks, and they're working hard to get your money by using fraud and fakery.

Currently, for example, scammers are using a fake Edmunds website that says we offer a cash escrow service in which we act as an intermediary between private-party car sellers and buyers.

It's not so. Edmunds does not assist in private-party transactions between buyers and sellers by holding titles, cash or vehicles. We don't ship cars either. If you encounter any such claims, please do not proceed. Instead, contact us immediately. You also can report this fraud to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and a Federal Trade Commission site that takes fraud complaints. If you have wired money to the seller, contact your bank immediately. It might be possible to stop the wire transfer.

Online car-buying scams abound, sometimes using fake versions of real websites, such as Edmunds, to lure people in.

Online car-buying scams abound, sometimes using fake versions of real websites, such as Edmunds, to lure people in.

In addition to faking Edmunds' site, scammers also have created websites that purport to be other escrow services or vehicle shipping companies. The goal is always the same, however: separating you from your money.

Here's how the scam works: A car shopper spots a too-good-to-be-true ad on a site where private parties buy and sell cars, including such places as Craigslist or Carsforsale.com. The ad may have links to photos of a real vehicle, and there might even be a legitimate vehicle history report. That's because the scammer has likely cloned an actual car ad. The seller (who typically only wants to communicate via email) has an explanation for why the price is so low. The seller also will offer a reason why the buyer can't see or test-drive the car before going forward with the purchase. Typically, the scammer says that he's moved overseas for a job or military deployment, but assures the shopper that the vehicle is stored and ready to be shipped once the money has been sent.

If a buyer agrees to purchase a vehicle, the fraudulent seller gives the buyer a link and instructs that money be wired to the account of the escrow agent (Edmunds, in the current scam). The promise is that the escrow company will hold the cash until the vehicle is delivered. Once the buyer wires the payment, the scammer ceases contact. And the car is never delivered, of course. The FBI has more information about this online car-shopping fraud, which has brought in more than 29,000 complaints and cost consumers more than $54 million since 2014.

Edmunds alone has received more than 1,200 complaints from consumers since June 2016 about this type of scam. In that time, Edmunds has been able to shut down more than 16 fake Edmunds sites and is working closely with the FBI to both recoup money and combat the scams.

One Shopper's Close Call

One shopper, Frank Piaia, came very close to losing more than $34,000 to the scam. He'd spotted a truck on a shopping site and wired the money via a link, supplied by the seller, to a fake Edmunds site. A few hours after the transaction, a friend told Piaia that the deal sounded fraudulent.

For the first time, Piaia typed "Edmunds.com" into his computer rather than using the link. The site looked very different from the one he'd used. Piaia emailed the real Edmunds.

"Could you reassure me that I haven't been the victim of internet fraud?" he wrote.

An Edmunds custom-care representative told Piaia that, unfortunately, it was a fraud. She urged Piaia to contact his bank immediately.

"Thanks to her, I managed to block the transaction and get the money back," Piaia said in an interview with Edmunds. "I'll never commit such a stupidity again."

Don't Be a Victim

Here are some tips for avoiding this online car-buying escrow fraud, particularly as it pertains to Edmunds:

1. The seller usually provides a website to visit and/or the seller's email address. Please keep in mind that the only official Edmunds site is edmunds.com. Check that edmunds.com is the domain, which means that edmunds.com appears at the very end of the URL or just before any forward slash.

Here is an example of an edmunds.com URL:

https://help.edmunds.com/hc/en-us

Here is an example of a URL that is NOT from our company:

www.edmunds.com.us.info-vehicle.com

This also applies to any email address to which you are asked to respond. If you come across a website or an email address that you believe to be Edmunds but you are unsure, please contact us at help@edmunds.com.

2. If a car deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Is someone offering a brand-new Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG for $80,000? How could that be? It retails for twice that much. Check the car's real private-party value with Edmunds' appraisal tool.

3. Try to establish telephone contact with the seller to find out where the car is. Ask to inspect it even if you don't plan to do so. Ask if the title is clear and in the seller's possession. Such questions may put off scammers.

4. Verify that the escrow company you plan to use is properly licensed. Call its phone number and ask to speak to a representative. Visit its website directly, not through a link sent to you by the seller. In California, for example, there is only one licensed online escrow company whose services are available to the general public: Escrow.com.

5. Don't give out your financial or personal information, such as a credit card number or bank account information, until you verify that the online escrow company you're using is legitimate.

6. Beware if a seller insists on using a particular online escrow company. It could be an attempt to steer you toward a fraudulent escrow services site.

7. Steer clear of sites that require users to set up accounts with online payment services. Legitimate escrow companies don't use person-to-person money transfers such as Western Union or MoneyGram or direct you to send your payment to an individual rather than a corporate entity. Definitely avoid any seller who wants payment in the form of gift cards or iTunes cards.

8. Fake escrow company sites often display logos from the Better Business Bureau, VeriSign Secure or TRUSTe. Check to make sure the escrow company really is endorsed by these organizations.