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When it comes to online car sales, it's seller beware

When it comes to online car sales, it's seller beware
Cars inside the port area as seen from the Goodyear Blimp. (Los Angeles Times)

Almost as soon as my "car for sale" ad went live on Craigslist and Cars.com, the inquiries started rolling in. What was surprising, though, was that every inquiry not from a car dealer came from someone trying to sell me something of questionable value or, worse, rip me off.

The Internet should be a tremendous boon to those looking to buy or sell a car without the costly intervention of a middleman. Not only does it bring buyers and sellers together efficiently, it helps both sides find the right price. What's missing from the online sales world, though, is the trust and authentication offered by an established dealership selling cars with warranties.

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Instead, the net opens the door for folks like "Steven," who texted me in fractured English to offer $400 more than I'd asked for my car, sight unseen. He insisted that I accept payment through the online service PayPal, which puzzled me because PayPal employs all sorts of anti-fraud techniques. But Shona Pijewski of PayPal explained that a sham buyer might send the seller a fake PayPal email purporting to show that a deposit has been made into the seller's account, when in fact no such deposit has been made. The scammer then either picks up the car or cancels the sale and demands a refund. By the time the seller logs into PayPal to check his balance, the scammer has his car or his cash and has disappeared.

Two people later used almost identical variations on the PayPal scam, telling me they wanted to complete the purchase quickly because "I am buying the vehicle for my dad and I'm very sure he will love this vehicle." They seem to have copied their note from some online "clip and save" vault for con artists. Another said he wanted to buy my car, but insisted that I order a report on the car's condition from an agency that's been faulted by the Better Business Bureau for having employees pose as car buyers who prod sellers to order the agency's reports.

That's just a sample of the come-ons I received. It's hardly news that pirates haunt the trade routes online; seemingly every site for private-party sales carries a warning about the risk of scams. And if consumers paid attention to those warnings, the sites wouldn't be such fertile ground for con artists. Nevertheless, websites need to do more to keep scammers from harvesting their users' contact information, and it's way past time for the tech industry to develop better tools to authenticate buyers and sellers. The rise of fraudsters is bad news for buyers and sellers, who may increasingly decide that it's better to pay a dealership's markup than to be some online scammer's mark.

-- Jon Healey

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook.

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