Skip navigation

Avoid this car sales scam

A row of cars for saleSelling a car on online? Chances are you’ve had plenty of interest but perhaps not from genuine buyers. We reveal a scam that all sellers should be aware of.

When Tom Bennett put his car up for sale on Auto Trader three weeks ago he expected to receive a few calls and emails from interested buyers.

In fact, he’s been bombarded with messages, but sadly they’re practically all from fraudsters.

In the last three weeks, the 28-year-old from Bristol has had no less than 15 emails from scammers enquiring about his car.

And a bit of online research proves he’s not the only one getting this sort of response to online ads: motoring forums are full of people reporting the same problem.

Tom said: “I can’t believe how many emails I’ve had. To me they’re obviously fake but to some people it might be an easy way to lose a lot of money.

“I’ve had more than 15 and only one genuine enquiry. It’s put me off selling online to be honest.”

How it works

The con operates as follows: a “buyer” contacts you expressing an interest in your car (or whatever you’re selling: the scam exists on websites other than Auto Trader).

Commonly, the emails are littered with grammatical errors, are oddly phrased and the buyer is most likely to say he or she is out of the country.

They then go on to say they want your item but can only arrange payment via PayPal.

They’ll ask you to give your PayPal details or set up an account. Once you’ve done that, you receive a notification that you've been paid for your goods. In fact you've been overpaid.

Subsequently you are asked to send the difference back via Western Union or some other online payment method – but as you do so, the fraudsters reverse the PayPal transaction, leaving you hundreds or thousands of pounds out of pocket.

Alternatively, the scam works by someone collecting the car, or whatever you’re selling, then raising a dispute with PayPal that the goods haven’t been received. PayPal can then take back the money from your account.

Here’s an example of one of the emails Tom received:

I really want this item to be a surprise gift for my son so i won’t let him know anything about the item until it gets delivered to him,i am sure he will be more than happy with the item.I insisted on paypal because I don't have access to my bank account online as i don't have internet banking, but i can pay from my PayPal account,as i have my bank a/c attached to it, i will need you to give me your PayPal email address so i can make the payment as soon as possible for the item and pls if you don't have PayPal account yet,it is very easy to set up, go on and get it set up ,after you have set it up i will only need the e-mail address you use for registration with PayPal so as to put the money through.I have a pick up agent that will come for the pick up immediately you have receive the payment in full.please get back to me with your last price?

This type of email is widespread online and Auto Trader says it is aware of the problem.

Helena Fearon, director of risk and compliance at Trader Media Group, which owns Auto Trader, said: “Cybercrime is highly organised crime and it’s growing year on year with fraudsters presenting increasingly sophisticated techniques to hijack customer account credentials.

“We have a dedicated Safety & Security area on the site offering advice about buying and selling vehicles – consumers can also report any concerns via this page to the Customer Security team.

“In addition we are founder members of the Vehicle Safe Trading Advisory Group, working with industry leaders and law enforcement to drive down online vehicle-related crime.”

Online scams are nothing new but asking for PayPal details seems to be the most common method to swipe cash from unsuspecting sellers.

How PayPal works

PayPal exists to help you buy and sell online without having to share your details directly with the buyer/seller. PayPal passes your money on, effectively acting as a middleman.

But, if something goes wrong, it’s then up to PayPal to settle the dispute. Although PayPal offers a “Buyer’s protection” scheme and a “Seller’s protection scheme” the benefit of the doubt seems to favour the buyer.

Put simply, if you sell something online and the buyer contacts PayPal and asks for their money back, (either claiming the goods were faulty or not received) PayPal could agree to refund the money without even checking with you whether you sent the goods and without validating the claim.

We spoke to PayPal, which says it’s aware of this type of email scam.

A spokesman said: “We offer separate protection for both buyers and sellers and both offer different levels of cover.

“It’s easy to have a long list of dos and don’ts but the best advice is to be on your guard and don’t be lulled into a false sense of urgency. If someone is pressuring you to pay for something then just step back, ask to talk over the phone if you need to. If in doubt, walk away.”

To avoid this type of scam, here are some top tips from Auto Trader:

• Never to send money abroad. If at all possible pay the seller in person when you go to collect the car.
• You should always meet the buyer or seller before completing the sale.
• Consumers should be vigilant to fraudulent emails, checking for indicators such as, poor spelling and grammar. Similarly, if the email gives too much information it may be a sign that the seller is trying to validate or authenticate themselves.
• As with many things in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. 

Compare car insurance - you could find a great deal in minutes Get a car quote



Get a FREE BRIAN toy when you buy car insurance (Ts&Cs apply).

Compare Car Insurance

Lois Avery

Lois Avery

Lois joined in 2010 after working for Dyson and as a local newspaper reporter in Wiltshire. After a year writing financial journalism at, Lois won the 2011 'most promising newcomer' at the BIBA journalist of the year awards.

Read more from Lois

Got a story?

If you've got a story about an experience you've had with insurance, utilities or personal finance we'd love to hear from you. Just click the button below and send us a message.

Got a story


Our blogs get people talking. Read all the latest from our contributors in the new blog section.



Take a look at our infographics for interesting facts on everything from road rage to Wayne Rooney.