Let’s run down some reasons why the vehicle you see online might be a scam.
- Talk of payment before a vehicle inspection: Does a car salesman at a dealership ask you for banking info? Of course not! While wire transfers and escrow accounts have merit in our economy, they are a non-starter in the initial stages of buying a car.
- Unexpected yet believable backstory: If the seller has some reason for not being in the same city/state/country as the vehicle, you have a problem. Don’t fall for their need to install a sense of urgency in the transaction, either. Get a local to put their hands on it, or end the conversation immediately.
- Asking price lower than market value: While bargains are possible when shopping locally with cash in hand, the odds drop precipitously once posted to a website with a national reach (or larger). This is one reason why Craigslist breaks down their service to regional subdomains (localcity.craigslist.com) and why Facebook Marketplace is severely skewed to local searches.
- Denial of a pre-purchase inspection: While you don’t have to enlist the services of an outfit like Auto Appraise, the mere threat will either net you renewed trust in the seller or they will promptly ghost you.
- Duplicate images: Do a Google Lens image search on their photos to see if they were posted elsewhere by a different, possibly more legitimate retailer of the vehicle in question.
- Where’s the VIN: While this applies more to newer vehicles, getting the VIN to run a Carfax (or similar service) ensures there isn’t a lien or any other procedural surprises headed your way.
- Terms and Conditions: If this pages suggests they “do not sell, trade, or otherwise transfer” any information you provide to them, but then backpedals with “except for parties that assist us, our business partners, etc. as long as they keep this information private” you might be on a classified aggregator. While not a dealbreaker, it’s a good sign to keep up your guard.
- One more thing: While you can find trustworthy sellers with real vehicles on these websites, they must pass the test on #1-6 above to prove their legitimacy.
Perhaps this isn’t a complete list, but it likely covers all the high points. And if you need it to be spelled out even more simply consider this: if you can’t work with someone local to the vehicle and verify its legitimacy (not stolen, no lien involved) with a third party, then it’s best to run away from the deal. A bargain car is just not worth that kind of risk.