Most of the time, all ends well, and both the seller and buyer are happy with the transaction. However, in 19 years of practicing law, I have heard quite a few very sad used car stories. Spending your family’s precious financial resources on a vehicle with mechanical or legal problems can be as financially devastating as an illness or job loss.
As a prospective car buyer, you can protect your financial future and your family’s safety with these tips to help you become a better prepared used car buyer. Learn the facts and avoid falling for these eight top used car buying scams.
1) Odometer Fraud
Rolling back the odometer is becoming more difficult as more recent models use a digital display, but even computers are not infallible. The best way to tell if an odometer has been tampered with is to obtain a vehicle history report from a service like CARFAX®. CARFAX may list a few events in the history of the car indexed to the mileage at the date of the event.
Odometer fraud example: If a CARFAX report for a vehicle indicates that a fender bender event occurred in January 2012 when the vehicle had 61,000 miles, then the seller will have a difficult time explaining why the used car’s odometer indicates that the car had only travelled 40,000 miles as of June 2013.
2) VIN Cloning From Similar Make and Model Cars
Stolen vehicles are sometimes sold with vehicle identification numbers (VIN numbers) that have been swiped from similar legally registered cars. One possible way to avoid this scam is to verify that all of the VIN numbers on the vehicle match, including those on the dashboard, the driver’s side door sticker, the car’s frame and the paperwork for the title. If the numbers don’t all match then don’t just walk away, run away!
3) “Title Washing” Salvaged Vehicles
Cars deemed salvage drop dramatically in value. A salvage title is usually issued on a damaged vehicle when the cost of repair exceeds 75% of its pre-damage value, but this exact number can vary state to state. Scammers “wash” the title of a car by altering the title documents and/or moving the car to different states to get a clean title. Check for working that indicates a salvage title, such as “totaled”, “reconditioned”, “salvaged”, “junked”, rebuilt” or “warranty returned.” Also examine the title document to see if it has been physically altered. A CARFAX vehicle history report could also be useful. If a car was originally sold or titled in some other state, it might pay dividends to investigate the history of the title in that state to see if it was “salvaged” vehicle in that state or had any significant damage out of state, but then the car was subsequently moved to the current state with the issuance of a clean non-salvage title.
4) “Curbstoning” Problem Vehicles
The laws of most states don’t allow private citizens to sell multiple vehicles, other than those titled to them. Frequently, troubled vehicles are farmed out to private individuals by unscrupulous vehicles dealers for sale because the dealer does not want to have a further tarnished reputation when the troubled vehicle is brought back by a dissatisfied customer. Beware of anybody who is trying to sell multiple vehicles or perhaps someone who seems to get by “buying and selling cars” for a living instead of working a regular job.
5) Dangerous Airbag Fraud
A deployed airbag can be difficult and costly to replace. Airbag covers can be replaced on the dashboard so that, from inside the vehicle, there is no indication that the airbag compartment is empty. A CARFAX Vehicle History Report may tell you if the car has been in an accident. If there is an accident history, it may be wise to verify that the airbag system is in good working order.
6) Too Much Sales Pressure
Yes, I know it is beautiful and you want or need it, but resist the temptation to move too quickly. A $100 investment for check over by a mechanic you trust together with an inexpensive CARFAX report might save you thousands of dollars down the road. A high-pressure seller is suspicious. The seller may be trying to move things along fast in order to hide something.
7) Who has the Title?
This is a big deal. You want to see the title before buying the car.
- If buying from a private party and there is money owed on the car, you want to go with the seller to the bank and pay the car off directly and have the bank release the title to you on the spot. Don’t just hand over a large sum of money to the seller and trust that all will be fine. And for me, this same rule applies even when doing business with a dealership or used car lot, as I explain below.
- If buying a used car from a vehicle dealer, you still want to see the title before you hand over the money. This is because a cash-strapped dealer could be “floating” the car on the lot by accepting the vehicle as a trade in without paying off the underlying obligation that the previous owner owed to the bank, hoping that a buyer will come along before the next payment comes due and is reported to the prior owner as late and unpaid. If you pay the dealer directly but then the dealer goes out of business or for some reason can’t or won’t pay your purchase money over to the prior owner’s bank then you could end up getting nothing for something. The prior owner’s bank can come repossess the car for non-payment because they have a superior lien or security interest in the vehicle, and you may be out your money and your car.
If you find a dealership or car lot that is “floating” the car, then beware and consider walking away. If you still want to do business with that dealer, I suggest that you take your money to the prior owner’s bank and pay that bank directly to release the title to you.
8) Consigned Vehicles on Car Lots
Beware. Some dealerships that won’t “float” the title as explained in #7 above will take a vehicle on consignment. Consignment isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but pay attention to #7 above when paying over money for the car. If there is no money owed on the vehicle to a bank, consider having the consignor come to the car lot with the title and sign it over to you on the spot when the consignor is paid. If there is money owing on the car on the lot, then I recommend that you require that the dealer and the consignor all meet together at the bank where the money is owed and do a three-way transaction where you cash out the bank and the title is signed and delivered to you on the spot. If one of the parties won’t cooperate, strongly consider walking away.
CARFAX does have its Critics
A clean CARFAX vehicle history report is not a guarantee that the car has no prior accidents or problems, but it may be the best assurance that you can get! You’re better off coming prepared with something from a reputable company like CARFAX than with nothing.
It can be exciting to replace your car, but don’t let your enthusiasm overwhelm your judgment! If after reading about all of the dangers and pitfalls that can befall used car shoppers you are still determined to proceed, then go forth with your eyes open, a trusted mechanic at the ready, and don’t forget your CARFAX report. You are now better prepared to enter the wild world of the used car market.