The Biggest Car Buying Scams to Watch Out For

The Biggest Car Buying Scams to Watch Out For

When buying a car, the last thing you want to do is fall for a scam. With the car market as hot as it is, you’re under a lot of pressure to make a decision fast. With lots of money and anxiety in play, scams thrive in markets like these. It’s easier for fraudsters to push people into falling for high-value cons when the average buyer is desperate.

You can avoid wasting thousands of dollars on a scam by learning what fraud is most common. Here’s what you need to know about which vehicle buying scams are currently circulating and how to avoid falling for them.

Odometer Rollbacks

In legitimate car listings, the odometer reading is one of the best clues as to the car’s condition overall. While a vehicle with 200,000 miles on it could be in reasonable condition, it will always have more wear and tear than a similar one with 50,000 miles. The higher the odometer reading, the lower the market value.

Unscrupulous sellers will roll back odometers. This practice is strictly illegal but all too common. These sellers will take tens of thousands of miles off the odometer readings to make their cars seem more appealing and hide how much use they’ve seen. As a result, you could buy a vehicle that needs major mileage-based repairs like transmission replacements significantly sooner than you anticipated.

The easiest way to avoid buying a car with an odometer rollback is to get reports from CarFax and similar providers. If the odometer reading seems unrealistic or impossible compared to the CarFax report, pass on the car and find something else.

Too Good to Be True Prices

There’s a reason why the phrase “too good to be true” is so often applied to vehicle prices. If a car seems fine but is being sold for dramatically less than market rates, there’s probably something wrong with it that will cost you money in the long run.

There are two significant reasons why a car might be sold for unbelievably low prices. Either the car is a lemon, the sale is a scam or both.

For instance, sellers might try to fob off a vehicle with serious safety problems at a price lower than the market value for a safe car but higher than it’s actually worth. These sellers are trying to get rid of broken or dangerous vehicles by selling them “as-is” and making them your problem instead. They’ll usually push you to avoid things like test drives of CarFax reports, so you don’t experience the problems yourself before making the purchase.

Low prices can also mean that a seller is actively trying to scam you. These scams can include selling stolen vehicles for cash or gift cards or selling cars that don’t exist in exchange for wire transfers. They may even try to trick you into putting a deposit on a vehicle because of how fast cars are selling, then disappear when you try to contact them to make the purchase.

In short, don’t fall for prices that seem impossibly good. Always take the vehicle for a test drive before buying it so you know it really exists and you can spot fundamental problems. If you can, take it for a pre-purchase inspection with a mechanic you trust, too. They’ll give you an unbiased view of the vehicle’s actual state so you can decide whether it’s a worthwhile investment.


One of the oldest car-selling scams in the book is known as “curbstoning.” In a typical curbstone scam, the seller tells the buyer to buy the car at a random parking lot or road curbside. This makes it harder to trace the seller in the future, and it’s the root of the name. When the buyer arrives, the seller acts like they’re desperate to get rid of what looks like a perfect car. Many buyers will jump to make the purchase, thinking they’re getting a great deal.

The problem is that the cars are usually dressed up to hide serious flaws or missing parts, from missing airbags to internal water damage to shoddy frame repairs. The vehicle will be meticulously clean and look great on the surface, but any mechanic would condemn it immediately. This makes selling the car for actual use actively illegal.

Even worse, most curbstoners will withhold critical documents. The buyer often drives the car away but never receives items like the car’s title. This makes it even harder to trace the seller and hold them accountable for the illegal sale.

This is another situation in which it’s important not to believe a price that’s too good to be true. Be cautious about meeting any seller anywhere other than a dealership or the seller’s home. Furthermore, never buy a vehicle if you won’t receive the title immediately. Both of these are signs that a car sale isn’t legitimate.

Fake Vehicle History Reports

Scammers know that people are starting to catch onto their tricks. As more people insist on getting trustworthy vehicle history reports before making a purchase, fraudulent sellers have found ways to fake these reports.

For instance, a talented fraudster may create an entirely fake vehicle history report and send it to you. These reports can look perfectly real. However, you shouldn’t trust anything shady sellers send you unless you’ve visited a trustworthy site yourself. It’s too easy to manipulate genuine reports to look like they’re about other cars entirely.

Instead, visit your preferred vehicle history report personally and grab the report yourself. There are also fake history report sites, so don’t click through links the seller sends you if you don’t recognize the domain. It’s better to pay a few dozen dollars extra to confirm a legitimate listing than waste thousands of dollars based on a doctored document.

What to Do If You’ve Bought a Lemon

You still have options if you’ve already fallen for a car buying scam. In particular, if you’ve bought a vehicle that’s considered a lemon under California law, you may be able to get it fixed or refunded. Reach out to the experienced lawyers at Johnson & Buxton to learn more and see whether there’s a simple solution to recover from your mistaken purchase.

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