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Possible Red Flags or Signs of a Scam When Buying a Car

Possible Red Flags or Signs of a Scam When Buying a Car

In the world of used cars, knowledge is power. Whether you’re a first-time buyer or a seasoned veteran, understanding the possible red flags or signs of a scam when buying a car is crucial. This article aims to equip you with the necessary information to avoid scams and make an informed decision when purchasing a vehicle.

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Red Flags When Buying a Car

1. Unrealistically Low Price

If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. An unrealistically low price can be a sign of fraud or a problematic vehicle. Always compare prices from multiple sources and understand the market value of the car you’re interested in.

Another important read: How to spot and avoid Facebook Car Scams.

2. Rushed Sale

Sellers who are overly eager or pushy about closing the deal quickly may be trying to offload a problem vehicle. A legitimate seller will understand your need to think things over and have the car inspected.

3. Incomplete or Missing Paperwork

A vehicle’s history report and maintenance records are essential. If the seller can’t provide these, it’s a red flag. These documents provide valuable information about the car’s past and its upkeep.

See also: How you can Sell a Car Without Getting Scammed.

4. Tampered Odometer

Be wary of unusually low mileage for the car’s age. This could indicate odometer fraud, a scheme where the mileage is rolled back to increase the car’s selling price.

5. Seller Unwilling to Meet or Show the Car

Seller Unwilling to Meet or Show the Car
Seller Unwilling to Meet or Show the Car

If the seller is reluctant to meet in person or doesn’t want you to see or inspect the car, it could be a scam. Always insist on seeing the car and having it inspected by a trusted mechanic.

6. Pressure to Pay Upfront

Never pay for a car without seeing it first. Scammers often pressure buyers to make upfront payments. Always use secure payment methods and avoid wire transfers.

7. The Car “Just Needs a Tune”

This phrase often masks underlying issues with the car. If a car “just needs a tune,” ask why the seller hasn’t done it themselves. It could be a sign of more serious problems.

8. Multiple Ownership Changes

Frequent changes in ownership could indicate problems with the car. A vehicle history report can provide this information.

9. Lack of Maintenance Records

Especially for sports cars and convertibles, a lack of maintenance records can be a red flag. Regular maintenance is crucial for these types of cars, and a lack of records could indicate neglect.

10. Built Motors Without Built Rods

For Subarus and other sports cars, this can lead to engine failure. If you’re buying a car with a built motor, make sure it also has built rods.

Common Car Buying Scams

Common Car Buying Scams
Common Car Buying Scams

Fake Ads

fraudsters often advertise cars that they don’t own. These ads may appear legitimate, displaying photos matching the description of the car and including contact details. To avoid this, ask for details about the car, such as the vehicle identification number (VIN), and insist on inspecting the car in person.

Gift Card Ripoffs

Some fraudsters insist on payment for a vehicle with gift cards. This is a clear red flag. Never purchase a car with gift cards as it is almost impossible to recover your money.

Fraudulent Wire Transfers

If a seller asks for money to be exchanged through a wire transfer, it’s best to decline. It can be difficult to recover your money if the deal turns out to be a scam.

Title Washing

Title Washing, which is a scam that involves hiding a car’s history, such as major damage from a wreck, by washing away critical information from the title. It’s illegal and often carried out in the sale of a used car. To avoid this, order a report that gives you a clear picture of the vehicle’s history before you buy it.


A curbstoner sells used cars without holding the required license or permits and without maintaining a regular place of business. These fraudulent deals often happen in vacant parking lots, along the side of a road, or even at the curb in front of a home. Curbstoners typically sell salvaged or damaged cars to unsuspecting buyers and then disappear without providing any contact information.

Identity Theft

In this case, a scammer doesn’t care about buying your car. Instead, they’re interested in stealing your identity. They do this by requesting personal information such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, or car maintenance records. Be careful about supplying this type of personal data to anybody who says they’d like to purchase your car or accept a trade-in.

Fake Escrows

In this scam, a fraudster poses as a buyer and uses a fake escrow service to hold the money for a car purchase. After the seller turns over the car title, they quickly find out that the escrow money can’t be withdrawn. To prevent being scammed like this, pick a reputable escrow service that you want to use.

Payment Plans

A scammer may try to steal money by posing as a buyer and proposing car payments be made over time. The “buyer” may take possession of the car and make an initial payment or two but then stop.

When you’re the seller, your options for getting the rest of your money are limited. Don’t ever agree to a payment plan when you’re selling a car.

Remember, buying and selling cars online can be safe as long as you take the proper precautions to protect yourself.

Always do your research and trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s better to walk away from the deal.

How to Protect Yourself From Car Buying Scams

When buying a car, always do your research. Here are some measures that should be a part of any car-buying process:

  1. Verifying the Seller’s Identity: It’s important to ensure that the person selling the car is indeed the rightful owner. This can be done by asking for identification and comparing it with the name on the title and registration.
  2. Checking the Vehicle’s History Report: Services like Carfax and AutoCheck can provide detailed reports about a vehicle’s history, including past accidents, title issues, service history, and previous ownership. This is a crucial step in the car-buying process.
  3. Getting a Pre-Purchase Inspection: Encourage readers to have the vehicle inspected by a trusted mechanic before making a purchase. This can uncover potential issues that aren’t immediately apparent.
  4. Understanding Financing Scams: Some scams involve the manipulation of loan terms, including the interest rate, length of the loan, or the amount financed. Educating readers on how to secure financing independently of the dealership can help them avoid such scams.
  5. Recognizing Online Scams: With the rise of online car sales, it’s important to discuss how to navigate online marketplaces safely. This could include tips on securing payment, avoiding fraudulent listings, and safe communication practices.

What to Do If You Spot a Red Flag

If you spot a red flag, NEVER ignore it. Ask the seller about it directly. If their explanation doesn’t satisfy you, walk away!

Remember, it’s better to miss out on a deal than to end up with a lemon.

What to Do If You’ve Been Scammed When Buying a Car

Discovering that you’ve been scammed when buying a car can be a distressing experience. However, there are steps you can take to rectify the situation and prevent further damage.

Report the Incident

Firstly, report the scam to your local law enforcement agency. While they may not be able to retrieve your money, they can investigate the incident and possibly prevent others from falling victim to the same scam.

Contact Your Bank

If you paid for the car using a credit card or bank transfer, contact your bank immediately. They may be able to stop the transaction or recover your money. If you used a credit card, you might be protected under your card issuer’s policies.

File a Complaint

File a complaint with your state’s attorney general’s office or consumer protection agency. They can provide advice and possibly take action against the scammer.

Consult a Lawyer

Consider consulting a lawyer, especially if a large sum of money is involved. They can advise you on your rights and possible legal recourse. If the amount is small, you might be able to take the case to small claims court and handle it yourself.

Check for Warranty or Service Contract

If your car comes with a warranty or service contract, read it carefully. You may be able to get some or all of your money back if the car doesn’t live up to the promises made in the warranty or contract.

However, chances are if the seller were running a scam, they wouldn’t offer a warranty to restore your purchase.

Even if they did,

Would they actually honor it?

Learn and Move On

While it’s a tough lesson to learn, use this experience to educate yourself about car-buying scams. Next time, you’ll be better prepared to spot red flags and avoid falling victim to a scam. Remember, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Remember, it’s important to act quickly if you suspect you’ve been scammed. The sooner you take action, the better your chances of recovering your money and bringing the scammer to justice.


How do I know if my car buyer is legitimate?

You should always verify the identity of anyone buying your car to know if they’re legitimate and not part of a scam. The first time you should verify the identity of a potential buyer is before they test drive your car. The next time will be to fill out the title.

What can scammers do with a vehicle’s VIN number?

With a VIN number, a scammer could register a vehicle, file claims on damaged/totaled cars, and even create spare/duplicate keys. I have even read about thieves who were able to create a fake registration and drive a car off of a dealer’s lot using the fake registration as proof of ownership.

Should I give a car buyer my VIN number?

Unfortunately, giving potential buyers your VIN number is an unavoidable part of the car-buying process. If you refuse, it will be perceived that you are hiding something and make it nearly impossible to sell your car.


Buying a car can be an exciting experience, but it’s essential to stay vigilant and informed. By understanding the red flags and potential scams, you can protect yourself and make the best decision. Remember, when in doubt, it’s always better to walk away from a deal that seems too good to be true.

Additional Resources

For more information on vehicle history reports, check out resources like Carfax or AutoCheck. Websites like the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission offer valuable tips on avoiding scams and safe online transactions.

Remember, knowledge is your best defense when buying a car. Stay informed, ask the right questions, and don’t rush your decision. Happy car hunting!

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Steve Momot - Author

Steve Momot - Author

Steve, a seasoned expert in the automotive industry, formerly held a car dealer license in Florida. With extensive experience spanning across car trading and mechanical work, he founded Autohitch. His mission? To guide both buyers and sellers through the intricate maze of car purchasing, ensuring a seamless and informed experience. Outside of the automotive world, Steve has a passion for fishing and capturing the beauty of nature through photography.


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