Personal Finance: Con artists hijack car ads for cash

Personal Finance: Con artists hijack car ads for cash

August 22nd, 2012 by Susan Tompor/Detroit Free Press in Business Diary

When Roy Johnson spots a silver Jaguar with a white interior - and oddly, he has spotted more than one - all he can think about is the great deal that got away.

And, no, the 63-year-old disabled retiree cannot forget the $7,349 he ended up losing in the process.

"It was supposed to be shipped for free," said Johnson, who used to work in the heating and air-conditioning business in Huntington, W.V.

But Johnson ended up with no silver car and no money after being stung by a fake online ad. Con artists pretended to be connected to a bank repo business but really touted fake car deals as a way to rake in cash.

Some of these scams are worth remembering if you end up shopping for a hot used car.

Top Complaints

Car troubles - including misrepresentations in ads, faulty repairs and scams involving used car sales - are among the top complaints made to state and local consumer protection agencies, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.

The used car complaints vary. The consumer survey pointed out one report of a worthless trade-in promotion in Maryland that promised 100 percent of the original manufacturers' suggested retail price as a trade-in allowance. But tricky fine print meant that ultimately, one consumer received no cash on a trade-in for a 2000 Buick LeSabre.

The complaints about online ads relating to used cars, though, can be far broader in scope, as con artists have netted more than $50 million in the past four years.

Based on data provided by the FBI, so far this year, the Internet Crime Complaint Center has received 1,685 auto-auction fraud complaints with a reported loss of $4.9 million through July 31. In all of 2011, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received 4,066 auto-auction fraud complaints, with $8.3 million in reported losses.

Hijacking Ads

The Better Business Bureau for eastern Michigan is warning consumers about criminals who hijack online vehicle ads to sell vehicles that they do not own and have no intention of delivering.

Often, a good-looking car is advertised at an amazing price. The BBB notes that some type of "buyer protection plan" can be offered, but it's a scam, too.

Jack Christin Jr., associate general counsel for eBay Motors in San Jose, Calif., said consumers should watch out for any used car sale that starts out on Craigslist or elsewhere - but then moves to another website, such as eBay Motors.

"Any kind of offer that fits this description is a fake and should be avoided at all costs," Christin said.

Christin stressed that a hard-luck story - a sick child or a lost job or a divorce - is used to hook potential buyers into believing that the low price is engineered for a quick sale.

Scammers are particularly clever and don't often offer a $10,000 minivan for $800. Usually, the con artist's sales price is a deep discount but a bit more believable.

"It's not, like, so good that it seems bizarre," Christin said.

With the Internet, it's easy to show photos of a car online or via email that you don't own.

But Christin said it's also possible to buy a car sight unseen in a legitimate online car deal. He noted that eBay Motors has sold more than 4.5 million cars online since 2000.

Buying a car out of state - and not seeing it until delivery - is not necessarily a problem, if the deal is being conducted in a legitimate way, Christin said. Many times, legitimate buyers and sellers live in different states and work out a delivery plan.

What buyers don't want to do is pay a stranger for a used car or any item via Western Union or MoneyGram. Even putting that money on a store-bought prepaid card could be an easy way to lose cash, if you don't know the seller.

Becoming cautious

The bargain-deal scam may be alive and well. But Christin has been pleased to see that some consumers are becoming more cautious after efforts to get the word out.

He has seen consumers jump into online conversations on car-enthusiast websites to warn others who mentioned that they just saw a fantastic deal on a great car - but maybe that deal seemed somewhat odd.

Online consumers often warn: "It's a fake. Don't do it."

Johnson cannot remember how he found that low-mileage 2004 Jag. Now, he understands the red flags that didn't bother him back when he was buying the car in February 2011.

The seller in his case was never around to talk on the phone. Every conversation was online. Free shipping seemed a little odd, too, in retrospect. His money was wired from his bank to an overseas bank account.

The FBI, he said, told him: "I'm sorry to tell you your money is gone."

Johnson tries to be philosophical, saying that his wife reminds him that he cannot do anything about the money. It's gone.

And Johnson reminds himself that many have lost much more in retirement plans during the stock market meltdown. Even so, he doesn't want anyone else to fall for such a bum deal.

Steering clear

• One sign of a scam: A con artist may refuse to meet the potential buyer in person or even allow a vehicle inspection - claiming he or she is moving soon or needs to rush the sale.

• Don't get caught up in someone's sob story on why the car needs to sell fast.

• Do not use a money transfer service, such as Western Union, to pay a stranger for a used car or other item. Such services are convenient but best used to send money to people you know. Scammers can use such services to get your money quickly without being caught. See

• Be careful if you get an email saying you won a top bid for an auction for a used car. It's best to go back to the online auto auction site to double-check. Con artists can capture email addresses and contact you directly about cars being sold by someone else.

• Think twice about dealing with someone in another country.

• Take care if someone asks you to pay them by loading cash onto a store-bought prepaid card, as consumer agencies say prepaid cards are now an easy way for scammers to get cash and not get caught.

• The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center is at

• For more tips regarding online car sales, see eBay's Security Center: