Victims of car-buying scams are losing an average of £998 by purchasing vehicles advertised online that don’t really exist.

These types of scams surged by 74% in the first half of 2023 compared to last year, according to research by Lloyds Bank, which found that fraudsters were most likely to conduct the scam via platforms such as Facebook Marketplace.

This spike means that vehicles and related accessories are now the most commonly-reported type of online shopping scam in the UK.

How do car scams work?

The scam itself is fairly simple. A fraudster will create a fake listing on social media or an online marketplace advertising a vehicle for sale, using someone else’s photos.

When an interested buyer gets in touch, the fraudster then asks for an upfront deposit to secure the car. If the buyer asks to see the car first, the fraudster will typically have some excuses ready as to why they can’t. They may also apply “pressure selling” tactics to push the buyer into acting, such as emphasising how popular the car is, saying they have other offers, or setting a deadline on the sale.

The victim will usually be asked to send money via bank transfer – surprisingly, this is actually not a particularly reliable way of paying for things online, and there is very little protection if something goes wrong.

After the payment has gone through, the fraudster then blocks the buyer and deletes their profile, or sends a fake address for them to collect the car from.

Lloyds found that fraudsters were most likely to advertise a Ford Fiesta, one of the nation’s most popular cars that is now no longer in production. Other vehicles commonly listed in fake ads include premium brand cars like BMWs and Audis, motorbikes and vans.

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How to avoid getting scammed

It’s really important to be vigilant when shopping online, particularly if you are using a website where anyone can list goods for sale. Lloyds found that over two thirds of vehicle scams in 2023 occurred on either Facebook or Instagram, with another 15% taking place on online auction site Ebay.

While the safest way to avoid being scammed is to always buy a car from a dealer, if you do see a tempting offer on an online marketplace, make sure you go about the purchase very carefully. If, for example, the seller starts providing reasons why you have to pay before even seeing the vehicle, it’s almost certainly a scam. Similarly, if the price tag looks too good to be true, chances are it probably is.

Never part with your money until you have seen the car yourself and tested it or had it checked over by a mechanic – even if the car does exist, fraudsters often sell faulty vehicles to victims for over-inflated prices. Remember to ask to see the vehicle’s logbook (V5C) to verify that the seller owns the vehicle as well.

Liz Ziegler, fraud prevention director at Lloyds, said: “Buying directly from approved dealers is the best way to guarantee you’re paying for a genuine vehicle, and always use your debit or credit card for maximum safety. If you do want to buy something you’ve found through social media, only transfer funds once the car is in your possession.”

Finally, ideally you should always use a credit card when making any online purchase rather than a direct bank transfer, as this should provide you with protection under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. You can find out more about credit card protections in our guide Section 75: Credit card protections explained. If you do get scammed, report it to your bank immediately.

You can read more tips for buying a used car – including how to avoid some other tactics scammers sometimes try – in our article 12 tips for buying or selling a car. Alternatively, you can explore which other scams are doing the rounds and how to avoid them in our article Latest scams to watch out for in 2024.

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