Spoiler: If it’s too good to be true or if the deal feels “fishy”… Trust your gut.

Quick notes:

  • Study shows common used-car scams cheated more than $54 million out of Americans

  • A study found that these sites are certified for buying cars

  • Buying a used car from Craigslist can be a huge money-saver from both parties, but some scams are very complex and are operated by clever, experienced con men

FBI reports on the newest used car scam

The FBI reports that false advertising has generated nearly 29,000 complaints since 2014, and has successfully stolen more than $54 million as of December 2017, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The scheme begins when a potential buyer finds an online posting for an affordable and decent-looking used-car for sale by a private owner. The price is low enough to pique the buyer’s interest. The ad also looks legitimate. The owner sends additional photos upon request. If the price is really low, shoppers tend to ask why the seller is offering at such an unbelievable price.

The seller explains that the low price is because they need to sell the car as quickly as possible. Common scenarios reported include they need to relocate for a new job, to care for a sick relative, or they’re in the military and being deployed someplace in the world. Ultimately, after the buyer pays, the vehicle never arrives and the buyer loses thousands of dollars.

It’s safer to pay in person

A seller should be okay meeting first before the final sale. Many scams will ask for payment upfront, and most victims are willing to ship money over before this initial meeting. The scammer might also ask for a wire transfer, a prepaid debit card, or a gift card before even meeting to ensure they don’t sell the car to someone else.

“The scammers always lying to me, always pretending to be somebody else— always have that motive of getting money from me. I want to believe that everybody I deal with in real life is genuine.” -Founder of Scam Survivors, Wayne May

When it comes time to pay, there are two common scams fraudsters use. The seller may say the easiest way to handle the transaction will be for the client to purchase prepaid cards and share the card with the scammer, who says the vehicle will soon be delivered.

The second fraudulent transaction Americans fall for is the Escrow Scam. Rightfully, customers are wary of sending large amounts of money to someone they’ve never met. Scammers frequently suggest the use of fake escrow services for money transfers. Legit escrow services (eBay, PayPal, etc.) will hold funds involved in the transaction until both parties are satisfied or can issue a refund.

Avoid becoming prey

Many scams work because of the victim’s own eagerness to close a deal that is too good to be true. Real salesmen will want to show you the car in person and answer all questions about the car’s history. If buying a car from someone out of the area, genuine sellers will not have a problem arranging a mobile service to inspect the car.

If the seller is legit, the sale will flow smoothly and without issue. Sellers will want to speak with the buyer on the phone. Many scammers will hide behind bogus email accounts that provide little to no information about their whereabouts. Thieves will disappear quickly if they are asked too much personal information. Avoid sellers who will not agree to phone calls, in-person meetings, or let you or a professional inspection of the vehicle before the purchase.

Check the car’s value with an online car valuation like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. If the price is drastically lower than the market’s price, that should be a major red flag. Real sellers are going to want to get what the car is worth.

Compare and research safe car buying websites

It is always encouraged to shop from local dealers but buying and selling cars on Craigslist large money-saver for both the seller and buyer. Both can expect to make or save more than if they had gone to a dealership. However, with so many people exchanging cars for fast cash, con men noticed how untraceable scamming could be.

Common Craigslist car scams include posting does not include a phone number, the seller will demand that you pay an online escrow service of their choice, payment must be wired to or from another country, the vehicle is not in advertised condition after its bought, or the odometer has been tampered with.


Credit Karma established a list of the top 14 sites best for buying cars, both directly online and peer-to-peer buying. The list includes eBay Motors, Carvana, Vroom, CarMax, Shift, Facebook MarketPlace, and Auto Tempest. Although peer-to-peer buying is popular, the Federal Trade Commission reports the most frequently reported internet fraud occurs on auction sites.

Make sure to carefully research the seller and their selling history. Never pay for the vehicle before inspecting the car in person.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101

We are living in the scam age and there are lots of scams circulating Craiglist. 

Anything and everything is available for purchase on Craigslist, but everything that glitters isn’t gold.