You can buy almost anything over the Internet—including clothes, a pizza, music, a hotel room, even a car. And while most transactions are conducted lawfully and securely, there are instances when criminals insert themselves into the marketplace, hoping to trick potential victims into falling for one of their scams.
Today, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued an alert about a specific type of cyber scam that targets consumers looking to buy vehicles online.
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Here’s how the scam works – while there are variations, here’s a basic description: consumers find a vehicle they like – often at a below-market price – on a legitimate website. The buyer contacts the seller, usually through an e-mail address in the ad, to indicate their interest. The seller responds via e-mail, often with a hard-luck story about why they want to sell the vehicle and at such a good price.
In the e-mail, the seller asks the buyer to move the transaction to the website of another online company….for security reasons….and then offers a buyer protection plan in the name of a major Internet company (e.g., eBay). Through the new website, the buyer receives an invoice and is instructed to wire the funds for the vehicle to an account somewhere. In a new twist, sometimes the criminals pose as company representatives in a live chat to answer questions from buyers.
Once the funds are wired, the buyer may be asked by the seller to fax a receipt to show that the transaction has taken place. And then the seller and buyer agree upon a time for the delivery of the vehicle.
What actually happens: The ad the consumer sees is either completely phony or was hijacked from another website. The buyer is asked to move from a legitimate website to a spoofed website, where it’s easier for the criminal to conduct business. The buyer protection plan offered as part of the deal is bogus. And the buyer is asked to fax the seller proof of the transaction so the crooks know when the funds are available for stealing.
And by the time buyers realize they’ve been scammed, the criminals – and the money – are long gone.
Red flags for consumers:
Cars are advertised at too-good-to-be true prices;
Sellers want to move transactions from the original website to another site;
Sellers claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company’s website;
Sellers refuse to meet in person or allow potential buyers to inspect the car ahead of time;
Sellers who say they want to sell the car because they’re in the U.S. military about to be deployed, are moving, the car belonged to someone who recently died, or a similar story;
Sellers who ask for funds to be wired ahead of time.
From 2008 through 2010, IC3 has received nearly 14,000 complaints from consumers who have been victimized, or at least targeted, by these scams. Of the victims who actually lost money, the total dollar amount is staggering: nearly $44.5 million.
If you think you’ve been victimized by an online auto scam, file a complaint with IC3. Once complaints are received and analyzed, IC3 forwards them as appropriate to a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency.