Used Car Buying Scams

Buying a car is an exciting time, sure, but it can bring a lot of stress, too... especially buying a used car. After all, someone else— maybe more—have owned this car. You want to know exactly what you're getting.

Although buying a used car can save you a lot of money in the short and long run, it's not always rainbows and puppies. Whether you're dealing with a dealership or a private party, you're at risk for scams. Protect yourself by doing a little research on some of the most common kinds of used car buying scams out there before you buy a car.

Types of Used Car Buying Scams

Title Washing

A title washing scam is one that gets rid of a salvaged vehicle's “salvage" status.

Generally, vehicles that have been repaired after serious car wrecks or natural disasters, such as floods, take on a salvage status. While not all salvage vehicles are nightmares, per se, buyers do want to know what they're taking on when buying one. However, by title washing, the seller can hide the fact that the vehicle has been through any sort of damage.


Curbstoning scams involve car dealers posing as private sellers to avoid national and state regulations related to buying and selling cars. Often, these dealers will post advertisements selling the vehicles as if they are the owners themselves.

Before you buy a car from a private seller, check to make sure the seller's driver's license matches the name on the car title.

Odometer Fraud

An odometer fraud scam occurs when someone has tampered with a vehicle's odometer to make it look as if the vehicle has lower mileage. Although digital odometers were once thought to be less susceptible to tampering, they're actually just as easy to manipulate.

Whenever possible, ask for vehicle maintenance records for the used car you're considering, and try to match up the recordings to the actual current odometer reading.

Escrow Scams

When a seller pulls an escrow scam, he's directed you to deposit money into a fake “escrow account." Once the money arrives, the seller­—and the vehicle—disappears.

Perhaps the best way to avoid an escrow scam is to do all business face to face, including the exchange of money. If you must use an escrow account, make sure you use a secured payment network. Research the network to find out exactly what happens if you get scammed.

Fake Certified Used Car

Simply put, legitimate certified used cars can sell for more than their uncertified counterparts; therefore, some dealers think they can slap on a “certified" sticker and sell their used cars for more—and they often do.

Protect yourself from this scam by understanding that certified used cars come from franchised dealers only. If you're looking for a true certified used car, visit a franchised dealership for that vehicle.

Lowball Price Scams

This one's too easy. You call the dealership, get an extremely low quote, visit the dealership to look at (and possibly fall in love with) the vehicle, only to find out the salesperson can't get that price approved by the manager. However, now that they have you at the dealership, they assume you're likely to buy a car anyway.

Research the value of all used cars in which you're interested before you visit or even call the dealership; that way, you'll know if what the salesperson tells you is feasible and whether or not the dealership's manager actually can offer you the deal.

Need help getting started? Check out Kelley Blue Book (KBB).

Open Recall Scams

Unless it's a serious safety issue, dealers are often legally allowed to sell vehicles with open recalls; however, any recall on a used vehicle you buy could put a nail in your tire, so to speak.

Before you purchase a used car, research the vehicle for any open recalls and, if you're still interested in the vehicle, negotiate accordingly with the dealer.

Warranty Scams

Sometimes, private sellers advertise their late model vehicles as still having active factory warranties. While this might be the case sometimes, other times warranties have been voided due to issues such as accidents, modifications, commercial use, and other factors.

Don't just assume the seller's telling the truth. Contact the manufacturer to find out if that specific vehicle still has an active warranty, and ask for any additional warranty information specific to the vehicle.

Stolen Deposit

If a private seller claims he needs a deposit up front to take the used car off the market, steer clear. Unfortunately, some “sellers" will take the money and run.

Whenever possible, handle monetary transactions face to face and all at once. If the seller insists on a deposit, it might be time to look for a used car elsewhere.

VIN Cloning

Basically, this refers to purchasing a stolen car. The thief has taken the vehicle identification number (VIN) from another vehicle and attached it to the stolen vehicle.

You can help protect yourself against VIN cloning scams by looking for matching registration and title information as well as using common sense such as being wary of private sellers with no fixed addresses.

How to Check for Used Car Tampering

Aside from trusting your gut, perhaps one of the simplest ways to check for used car tampering is to order a vehicle history report.

A vehicle history report gives you information about past ownership, accident history, flood and other natural disaster damage, faulty odometer settings, and even whether the vehicle was determined to be a lemon.

Learn more in our section on Vehicle History Reports.

Reporting Used Car Buying Scams

There are several ways you can handle used car buying scams.

If you purchased the used car at a dealership, report the dealership to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). You can use the BBB to report your own scams, as well as research used car dealers to make sure others haven't reported any used car buying scams from that dealership.

Also, you might consider contacting your state's attorney general, who is the state's chief legal advisor and law enf1rcement entity.

Don't forget the power of social media, too. There are numerous reputable websites that exist to help consumers share experiences and encourage—or warn—others about businesses practices.

Finally, if all else fails, consider seeking legal assistance. Unfortunately, sometimes you get scammed so severely that the only answer is to seek the legal help of an attorney with experience in used car buying and selling laws in your state.

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