• Image Credit: Getty Images


Most of the time, the Internet is a great place to shop for a car. You can see pictures, pricing information, obtain VINs for use in Carfax reports and learn a little history about the car you are considering, all without having to leave the comfort of your own home -- or actually talk to the seller.

But the reality is you’re going to run into the occasional bad egg. In the case of used car shopping, those eggs are online scams, which can waste your time and, if you’re not careful, cost you a lot of money.

Working with our own Patrick Purrenhage, AOL Autos product manager for used car listings, we’ve developed the top five red flags you should be on the lookout for when shopping for a car online.

Red Flag #1: The Car Is (Very)Underpriced

This is the easiest way to spot an online scam. Because scammers will often try to lure unsuspecting shoppers in with incredible deals that seem just too good to pass up, they will offer a car for a ludicrously low price, often at just a portion of the vehicle’s market value. If you see a listing that contains a deal that is too good to be true, consider it a red flag and assume that the deal is just that.

Spotting an underpriced vehicle is easy to do, even if you are a newbie to used car shopping. Check to see what a particular vehicle should be selling for by using sites such as our own Kelly Blue Book Values area. These and other sites offer services that let you instantly see the value of a used car based on its mileage, make and model, year and general physical status, at no cost. If the listing is priced at way below its value, odds are that it is a scam.

The seller may say that they have posted such a low price because they are moving, have had a baby, lost their job or have encountered any number of unforeseen circumstances. Use your best judgment and common sense when coming across these listings and just walk away, even if the deal seems too good to pass up.

  • Image Credit: Craigslist

Red Flag #2: The Listing HasSuspicious Photos

The photos included with a particular listing can be a good indicator of its authenticity, said Purrenhage. Scammers will often include photos of a vehicle that have been taken in a non-descript place such as a field, office parking lot or park. Most genuine photos are set in front of a house or in a garage.

It is important to also use your common sense when looking at a listing’s photos. For instance, if a certain listing claims to be located in Massachusetts and the photos of the vehicle include palm trees in the background, it should be obvious that something fishy is going on. It could be that the seller has moved, but if so, you should ask.

Often, scammers will include what seems to be a more complete set of photos, in an effort to get the unsuspecting shopper feeling more comfortable about the listing. If an ad has an inordinate amount of pictures of the car, which often are high quality, consider it a red flag and, if you are interested in the vehicle, tread carefully.

  • Image Credit: Alamy

Red Flag #3: The Seller Won’tShow The Car

If you have contacted the seller for a showing or test-drive and the seller responded that he or she is unable to show the car, consider it a red flag. After all, you should never purchase a used car without seeing it first and there is no reason whatsoever for the seller to expect you to do so.

Sometimes, a scammer will say that they can’t show the car because they are away visiting a sick relative or are deployed overseas in the military in an effort to drum up your sympathy. They may even offer to pay to ship the car to you. Do not fall for it. Even if you really want the car and the scammer has attached a tantalizing deal to it (see Red Flag No. 1), do not set logic aside. Insist that you see the car before considering a purchase or simply walk away.

Red Flag #4: You ReceiveSuspicious Invoices & Emails

Purrenhage said that another good way to spot a scam is by closely examining the invoice or e-mail that a seller sends after a used car shopper has contacted them. Scammers will often send out semi-official looking documents in an effort to get the unsuspecting buyer to feel like they are dealing with a genuine, professional person.

If you receive an e-mail like the one in the photo that includes outdated logos from popular websites, contains obvious misspellings and poor grammar, or includes overseas contacts on an official-looking document, make sure to question the seller and be prepared to walk away. If you find genuine illegal activity, alert the website that you found the listing on.

Additionally, if you receive an e-mail that seems to be an automated translation to English from another language or if it comes from a nonsensical e-mail address, tread very carefully. Just because a person may not speak great English does not mean a listing is a scam, but it is certainly red flag that you should be wary of, as many scammers are located internationally.

  • Image Credit: Alamy

Red Flag #5: The Seller WantsYou To Use Western Union

Do not buy a car using Western Union under any circumstances. Asking used car shoppers to wire money is a popular way that scammers operate, said Purrenhage, because of how Western Union is designed to operate.

Western Union offers no purchase protection policy or escrow service on the money that you send, meaning that you can never get it back if a scammer has taken it. Also, because Western Union does not require any form of personal identification to receive money, the unknown person who is “selling” the vehicle can pick up your money and disappear, without ever identifying themselves and never sending the car, which likely didn’t exist in the first place.

If a seller asks you to wire money through Western Union in order to pay for the car, you should always consider it a red flag and walk away from the listing. Again, no matter how good the deal may seem, use logic and common sense.

  • Image Credit: Coneyl Jay, Getty Images


If you encounter a scammer, make sure to alert the website on which you found the listing so they can take the proper measures to rid them from the site. Know that in doing so, you are making used car shopping a little bit safer for everyone out there.

All in all, if the deal seems like it is too good to be true, it probably is.
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