Criminals Are Hijacking Online Vehicle Ads To Trick Consumers, BBB Warns

June 29, 2012

If you are cruising the online vehicle ads for a new ride, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns consumers to be alert to criminals that hijack online ads to “sell” vehicles they do not own and have no intention of delivering.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received nearly 14,000 complaints from consumers who had been victimized or targeted by these scams from 2008 through last year. Victims lost nearly $44.5 million.

The scam varies, but what often happens is that consumers find vehicles they like advertised on a legitimate website, often at a below-market price. When the buyer contacts the seller, usually from an email address in the ad, the seller responds with a hard-luck story about why they’re selling the vehicle at such a low price.

The seller then asks the buyer to move the transaction to another website, often citing security reasons, and offers a buyer protection plan in the name of a well-known entity, usually a large online company.  The buyer receives an invoice and is instructed to wire the funds to an account. In some cases, sellers have posed as company representatives in a live chat, offering to answer questions from buyers.

Buyers are asked to fax a receipt to show that the funds have been wired, and the seller and buyer agree on where and when the vehicle will be delivered. Of course, once the money is wired, there is no vehicle and the buyer’s money is gone.

In most cases, according to the FBI, the ad that a consumer sees online is either phony or was hijacked from another website. When the seller asks buyers to switch to a second site, it is usually a spoof of a legitimate site where the scammer can conduct a criminal business. Any “buyer protection plan” is bogus.

The scam has a number of red flags that should alert consumers:

  • The price is too good to be true.
  • The transaction is moved to another website.
  • The seller says the “buyer protection plan” will cover the transaction even though the sale has been moved to another site.
  • The seller won’t let the buyer inspect the car before purchase.
  • The seller claims to be unable to show the car because they’re in the military and are about to be deployed, because they’re moving, because the owner died or because of some other reason.
  • The money has to be wired to the seller.
The BBB offers the following tips for consumers interested in buying vehicles online:

  • Buy from an established business with a good reputation. Check out the company’s BBB Business Review at or by calling 330-253-4590.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the business, find out if it has offices at the advertised address.  If you are unable to contact the company, contact the building manager or other tenants to confirm the business address.
  • If possible, pay by credit card in case you need to challenge the purchase.
  • Be wary of prices that seem unusually low. Low prices are the best way for a fraudulent business to attract victims.
For more advice on fighting fraud and managing personal finances, or call 330-253-4590.