Social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled an unprecedented shift to online shopping for consumer goods of all kinds, including vehicles, with particularly high demand for recreational vehicles (RVs). Many online platforms list cars, trucks, vans and RVs for very low prices, with sellers offering to make third-party delivery arrangements if the buyer pays via escrow. In reality, neither the automobile nor the escrow company exists — leaving the buyer without their money or their vehicle.
An in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds that thousands of consumers have fallen victim to this scam, with losses totaling millions of dollars. The study — Virtual Vehicle Vendor Scams: BBB Study Reveals a Growing Scam Using Fake Cars and Escrow Companies to Steal from Unwitting Consumers — points to a heightened risk from this scam as demand increases for online vehicle purchases. Read the full study here.
According to the study, websites such as Craigslist are rife with advertisements for low-price vehicles, with seemingly eager sellers often claiming that the reduced price is because of an upcoming military deployment overseas, a divorce, or the death of a family member to whom the vehicle belonged. Victims are directed to pay a supposedly independent third party, typically by wire transfer, to hold money in escrow and ship the vehicle. However, no vehicle is ever delivered.
“Buying a vehicle online from a reputable seller can be a safe and convenient way to shop during COVID-19, but as with any high-profile situation, scammers are finding ways to take advantage of unwitting buyers,” said Luke Frey, BBB spokesperson. “Consumers should use extreme caution so as not to let a low price and a sad story lure them into paying for a vehicle that does not exist.”
Scammers sometimes claim that the transaction is protected by the eBay vehicle protection program. In other cases, they invent bogus websites connected to shipping escrow companies with addresses in towns across the U.S., particularly the Midwest. Those sometimes use the names and addresses of real businesses or car dealerships.
Available data suggests that fake online vehicle sales are increasing, but the scope of this fraud can be difficult to gauge because many law enforcement agencies do not track it as a separate complaint category. The Internet Crime Complaint Center has reported receiving tens of thousands of vehicle escrow scam reports, with losses in the tens of millions. Criminal cases likewise reflect millions of dollars in losses. BBB receives hundreds of BBB Scam Tracker reports annually about fake vehicle shippers and escrow companies, with 41% of victims reporting they lost money.
Major investigations and prosecutions in New York, Kentucky and Europe have connected this fraud to Romanian nationals and others living in the U.S., Romania and elsewhere in Europe. In the most recent U.S. case, the Secret Service and the Kentucky State Police led an organized crime prosecution that charged 20 people, with a reported $1.8 million in victim funds converted to bitcoin and transferred to Romania. Fifteen defendants have pleaded guilty, three are fugitives, and two others are scheduled to go to trial in fall 2020. Romanian law enforcement provided key support in the case.
How to avoid car scams
- Watch for red flags
- The price is significantly below market for the car.
- You cannot meet the seller or inspect the car in person.
- Money must be sent to a supposed third party recommended by the seller.
- Payment is by gift card or bank to bank wire transfer.
- Do an internet search of the photo of the car, an interesting sentence in the text, the phone number or the email address, to see if there are online complaints tied to those elements.
- Use Whois to tell how long the website for an escrow or shipping company has been active and compare it to how long it claims to have been in operation elsewhere on the website.
- Examine emails or links “from” eBay carefully. There is no eBay protection unless the whole transaction takes place on eBay.
- Never pay for a vehicle through Western Union, MoneyGram, with a gift card or a reloadable card.
- Check a blue book for the real market value of the vehicle.
- Get a vehicle history report, such as Carfax or AutoCheck, on the car.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a vehicle escrow scam:
- Better Business Bureau – file a complaint with your local BBB if you lost money or report a scam online to BBB Scam Tracker.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – file a complaint online at ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call 877-FTC-Help.
- FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) – file a complaint online at ic3.gov/complaint.
- The platform where you saw a suspected bad ad such as:
- Craigslist –sfbay.craigslist.org/contact
- Kijiji – help.kijiji.ca/helpdesk/safety/how-do-i-report-an-ad
- Facebook Marketplace – facebook.com/help
- eBay – Forward suspicious emails to email@example.com