9 Sneaky Car Buying Scams To Watch Out For

Stay one step ahead of unscrupulous sellers with these car buying tips.
Updated Dec. 5, 2023
Couple choosing luxury car

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Buying a car can be exciting, especially if you get a good deal that helps you keep more money in your wallet. But the process can also pose risks if you aren’t careful.

Most car sellers are upstanding people who simply want to sell their vehicle to you. But others may be fraudsters.

Make sure you don’t get scammed by watching for these potential issues when buying a car.

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You can’t see the vehicle’s maintenance history

DragonImages/Adobe car mechanic talking to owner

If a seller isn't forthcoming about the vehicle’s history, it can be a red flag that the car hasn’t been properly cared for.

Ask for maintenance and repair records, including the last time the car underwent basic maintenance, such as an oil change or tire rotation. Regular maintenance can be a good sign that the car has been cared for.

On the other hand, a lack of records might indicate the car has not been adequately maintained.

They want you to use alternative payment options

Nattakorn/Adobe hand giving a car key and money

If the seller asks you to buy the car with gift cards or cryptocurrency, it should be a huge warning sign that something isn’t right. This could be a scam that allows the seller to run off with an untraceable payment.

They’re in a rush

carballo/Adobe man looking and buying used car

A car’s owner might insist on selling fast because they’re going through a divorce, about to leave on military deployment, or for another reason.

They might even demand a quick down payment to secure the car. They might soon disappear if it’s a scam, never to be heard from again.

A legitimate seller should give you time to review the car information before you agree to the sale. You should be worried about any seller who needs a down payment before you can get the car.

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They ask for personal information

Minerva Studio/Adobe man inside a car in a showroom

It’s typically fine for the seller to ask for your name or phone number to contact you, but be cautious if they ask for more personal information.

Avoid giving personal information to a potential seller that can be used to steal your identity, such as a credit card number or Social Security number.

You can’t confirm a VIN

jorge/Adobe woman typing in laptop inside car

A vehicle identification number, or VIN, is a unique number for each car that identifies it. You can learn important information about the vehicle, including potential recalls, how often the car has been sold, and the car’s accident history, among other information.

Usually, the VIN is located on the driver’s side dashboard or door jamb. Be wary if the seller won’t let you see the car in person so you can find the VIN. It might indicate that the seller doesn’t want you to know essential information about the vehicle.

They offer purchase protection plans

Natee Meepian/Adobe signing car insurance

Some sellers legitimately offer purchase protection plans to buyers as part of the purchase. But others may offer phony plans that have no value.

If you're unsure about the legitimacy of a purchase protection plan, ask for the name and phone number of the company supposedly offering the plan and call to make sure the company is legitimate and has a relationship with the seller.

You can’t get the car inspected

Minerva Studio/Adobe couple talking to the salesman

Folks who've bought a home are familiar with having an inspector go through the house to look for issues that might require repair or renovation.

Having your car inspected by a good mechanic is essentially the same thing. A seller who rejects your request to have the car inspected might be hiding something.

They mention little repairs

Minerva Studio/Adobe family talking to the salesman

Beware if a seller mentions that the car requires a minor repair, such as a little extra freon for the air conditioner or a passenger door that needs a window crank replaced. Such little repairs might indicate that the seller is covering up something bigger.

The risk is that the buyer will be long gone with your cash by the time you discover the major underlying issue.

They want you to use an escrow account

Nestor/Adobe car dealer with his clients

When it comes to big transactions, an escrow account can be a good way to protect buyers and sellers from scams. In this agreement, you place cash in escrow until both sides agree to the purchase.

But be very careful when using this tool. A scammer might trick you into putting escrow money into their account before walking away with your cash and the car.

By refusing to pay for a car in advance, you can avoid being trapped in a fake escrow account. You can eliminate some money stress simply by saying no to escrow in car transactions.

Bottom line

Syda Productions/Adobe happy couple with car dealer

Most sellers are honest, but you shouldn't overlook the risk of a scam when buying a car.

Keep the items on this list in mind, and trust your instincts. A little common sense can help you spot scams and avoid foolish mistakes that can cost you money.

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Author Details

Jenny Cohen Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer who has covered a bit of everything, from finance to sports to her favorite TV shows. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and FoxSports.com.

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