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12 Jun 2015
Jamie Gibbs Nik Andreev

How to spot a scam when buying a used car


Here’s how to stay safe when buying a secondhand car.

Car seller with crossed fingers behind his back

Buying a car can be quite an experience. You find the model you want then test drive it, which feels amazing. You decide to buy it, you finally hold the keys in your hand and you can’t wait to take it out for a spin. But don’t be too hasty.

Due to the amount of paperwork and research involved, it’s easy to overlook some not-so-obvious tricks that car sellers use to take advantage of you. For example, do you know how the car was financed? Have you checked its resale value and history? Is there any undisclosed damage?

It may not be until after you’ve closed the deal and excitement has died down that you realise something might have possibly gone wrong.

Remember, never part with your cash until you're completely happy. Whether you’re buying a used motor from a dealer or a private owner, it pays to be on your guard.

Be patient

Sometimes a seller might say things like “It’s such a bargain, act now!”, “There’s another potential buyer interested in the car!”, and “You have to decide quickly!” Here the seller is trying to force you into a quick sale.

Reasons could include technical issues with the car itself that could be picked up by someone more knowledgeable. Or the car could even be cloned or stolen. Always take your time: don’t rush into a decision you may regret and remember to ask the right questions.

Small car on a calculator

Be aware of the true cost of the car

If you’re buying a car on finance, make sure you’re aware of the different options available and their terms. The price of the car and its finance aren’t the only costs that you’ll face. Research the running costs, servicing and maintenance.

Knowing the cost of insurance, fuel consumption and vehicle tax is also essential. Even if the monthly payments appear to be a bargain, focusing only on them could be dangerous.

Find as much information about the car as possible

There’s paperwork that should come with every car, such as V5C (log book) registration certificate, MOT certificate, and service history. Make sure you run a car history check to see if the car has been stolen, involved in accidents or has outstanding loans against it.

If something doesn’t look quite right, the seller has lied about the history and condition, or if you can’t get your hands on the documents above, walk away.

Check the category when buying a written-off car

If a car has been in an accident and it costs too much to be returned to the condition it was in before the accident, it may be classed as a category A or category B write-off. Category A is for scrap only, whereas cars classified as B could be used for parts.

Cars classified under these two categories are not roadworthy and are illegal to sell. However, written-off category C and D cars can be fixed and returned to the road.

Parked cars

Be aware of the location when viewing a car

It may be convenient and safe to meet the seller at a location you’re comfortable with, different to the registered keeper’s address, but this could mean the car is stolen or cloned.

The V5C document states the address of the keeper, and if buying privately, try to see the car there.

Be wary when buying from abroad

Buying a car from abroad can be good for when you want to save a bit of money. Also, you can probably get your hands on an ‘exotic’ motor that isn’t available in the UK at all. Although this may sound very tempting there are a few pitfalls.

A common scam is to find a British car on sale for a suspiciously low price listed on a UK-based website. However, the seller is based abroad and would offer to ship the car once a payment is made.

Sometimes, the fraudster might ask you to pay in the money to a third-party account (eg Escrow) until the car is shipped. The seller will then produce fictitious proof of shipping and the holding account will release the funds to them, where in fact, no car has been send your way.

Woman browsing the internet

Another scam you should be aware of is when an overseas seller asks you for a deposit so they can ‘reserve’ the car for you. Don’t fall for that, especially if you have any doubts.

Another red flag which indicates something must be wrong is if the seller wants to use only email, and they try to avoid every other means of communication.

As the saying goes, if it looks too good to be true – it probably is. By following the advice above, you should avoid being conned and, more importantly, you’ll drive away into the sunset knowing that the purchase you’ve just made is well worth it.


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