Most common car scams and how to avoid them
Criminals conned motorists out of thousands of pounds in the past year. We look at the latest vehicle scams and how you can avoid becoming a victim...
In the first half of 2023, criminals stole £580 million from consumers through scams and fraud, and a growing number of those fraudulent transactions were for used cars or car parts.
There's a huge number of automotive scams that are proving highly lucrative for fraudsters. And, the worrying news for car owners, is that automotive scams increased by 74% between January and June 2023, compared with the same period previous year, according to data released by the Lloyds Banking Group*.
The most costly vehicle scams are ones where criminals advertise fake cars for sale at temptingly low prices, and get buyers to pay for them up front, and then disappear with the money. The used Ford Fiesta is the model most commonly reported as being in a car scam, followed by secondhand examples of the BMW 1 Series and Volkswagen Transporter van. Indeed, the Fiesta is also the UK's most stolen car.
However, there’s also a thriving trade in fake ads for car parts and accessories, and the average loss to consumers for vehicle-related scams is £998.
Here we round up the latest car scams and provide tips to help you avoid them.
Fake car sales websites
What is it? Online scammers set up fake car sales websites for dealerships that don’t exist, and populate them with extremely cheap cars to lure buyers into paying for cars thinking they’re getting a bargain.
How does it work? Criminals create car sales portals, often with names that are similar to genuine used car dealerships, and fill them with photos and information of real cars that are for sale elsewhere, offering them at big discounts, sometimes half the price they would usually cost.
When buyers phone or email to get more information about the vehicles, they are encouraged to pay for them in advance of seeing them to secure the deal. The criminals promise to deliver the car once payment has been made, but the cars are not delivered and once the fake dealer has the money, he becomes uncontactable.
What Car? And Car Dealer Magazine found one fake dealership in Scotland that had 79 vehicles for sale. It advertised them to buyers in the south of England, knowing that few would travel hundreds of miles to view cars, and would be tempted to pay online and then be duped.
How to avoid being scammed The old adage that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is, is appropriate here. If cars are being advertised for far less than the going rate, be wary, and investigate the seller before getting involved with them. Only pay a small holding deposit up front, and whenever possible make sure you see the car in the flesh before you pay in full. If you are interested in a vehicle, but not sure about the legitimacy of the seller, ask them to send you a photograph of the car's V5 registration document as proof they have the vehicle and are entitled to sell it. It’s also worth checking for online reviews of the company to see if any mention scams.
Fake car ads on social media
What is it? There has been a big increase in criminals using social media platforms and marketplaces to sell fake goods, and many of them are cars or car parts. According to Lloyds Banking Group’s data, most of the car sales scams reported to them started on Facebook, Facebook Marketplace and Instagram.
How does it work? Similar to the fake dealer websites, fraudsters create fake ads for cars for sale at rock-bottom prices and post them onto the sites. They may use photos of genuine vehicles that are advertised elsewhere online and may create fake addresses and other information to make the ad and themselves seem genuine. When potential buyers get in touch they’re given excuses as to why they can’t collect the car, but the seller offers to deliver it once payment has been made. Of course, this never happens. These online fraudsters will interact with buyers and even sometimes provide fake documents and information in order to get people to part with their cash.
How to avoid being scammed If you’re interested in a car, but the seller isn’t keen on you visiting them to see it, be suspicious. Don’t pay for a car up front, insist on seeing it first. If it’s too far away for you to check it out in person, ask the seller to make a video of the car so you can see that they do have it. You can also check that the car’s registration number tallies with the DVLA’s vehicle information service.
If you think you’ve spotted a fake ad on Facebook you can report it to the Facebook vehicle scam alerts group. It has more than 5500 members, all sharing information about vehicle scams they’ve spotted on the platform.
Fake car buyers
What is it? When you advertise your car for sale you may be contacted by a foreign buyer offering the full asking price or even more than that.
How does it work? The scammers lure car sellers in by offering unrealistically high prices for cars. They may ask you to contact a shipping agent on their behalf and may offer to pay by banker’s draft, which can be forged and, if so, may be rejected by a bank, potentially leaving you thousands of pounds out of pocket. Once the criminals have your car, they disappear without paying.
How to avoid being scammed If you’re contacted by a buyer who is abroad, or someone who’s offering more than the asking price for your car, think carefully about accepting their offer. If you think the potential buyer is a criminal, don't reply to them, but do advise the administrator of the website your car was advertised on.
Never hand over your car or any paperwork until you have been paid the full agreed price. Only accept payment via CHAPS/BACS electronic payments or direct money transfers, such as Paypal, as these are quick and safe and you can see the money as soon as it's in your account.
Be wary of anyone who wants to pay for an expensive car (over £10k) in cash, as they may be trying to launder money.
Car tax scam emails
What is it? The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has been battling scam messages pretending to be from the department for years. At the end of 2020, it released a number of examples of phishing emails after a 531% increase in reports of email scams. But this type of scam remains persistent due to its simplicity: fraudsters often send text-based emails in the style of genuine DVLA letters, duping people into thinking the payment for their car tax has failed or that the car is no longer taxed. There have also been a spate of text message based car tax scams.
How does it work? The scam relies on people not checking the validity of the email or text carefully and not checking that the payment from their bank account has actually failed, and instead hurriedly making payment. The scammers give the emails convincing titles and can alter the sending address so it looks like the email has come from the DVLA, and has gov.uk at the end.
The email or text has a link to the criminal's bank account so you end up inadvertently paying them instead of the DVLA. Some scams also collect bank account and card details and use them to extract more money from the victims.
How not to be scammed The DVLA states that it will never send emails or that ask you to confirm your personal details or payment information, so you can ignore any emails or texts you get that purport to be from them.
Fake emails that pretend to be from any government department can be reported to the National Cyber Security Centre on email@example.com. The fake websites they link to can then be investigated and removed to help prevent anyone from falling victim to them.
Car tax subscription scam websites
What is it? Fake government websites that charge consumers for services that are usually free, or sign people up to fee-based subscription services when they’re trying to do things, such as renew their car tax or register themselves as the new owner of a car.
How does it work? Con artists set up websites with names that are very similar to official Government ones for car tax and other services, so they appear next to the real ones in online searches. This means it’s an easy mistake to click on the fake website instead, and then you could end up paying them for a service you don’t want or need. We’ve recently found car tax websites that ask for your vehicle’s details and then instead of letting you buy your car tax, sign you up to a monthly subscription for car information costing up to £10 a month. Websites like this are offering completely unnecessary services and are charging for things the official sites offer for free.
How not to be scammed Make sure you only use the official gov.uk websites whenever you want to do anything via the DVLA online. The website for car tax is https://www.gov.uk/vehicle-tax. Double-check that the website you’ve chosen ends in gov.uk every time you visit it as there are many misleading third-party websites that charge extra fees in order to ‘help’ you apply for a driving licence or tax your vehicle.
Car park QR code scam
What is it? Scammers stick their own QR codes onto car park pay machines, tricking drivers into sending them their bank details while they think they’re paying for parking. Around 1,200 scams relating to fake quick response (QR) codes have been investigated by Action Fraud in the last three years.
How does it work? QR codes are used to enable people to pay for parking in many locations including train station car parks. Criminals create their own QR codes and stick these over the legitimate ones on car park payment boards. When people scan the fake code with their mobile phone they are directed to a website where they can enter their card details to pay for parking. The details are then used to take up to thousands of pounds from the bank account.
One lady in Teesside lost thousands to QR code scammers. Although her bank initially blocked the payment to the scammers, they phoned her, posing as bank staff and took £13,000 from her account.
How not to be scammed A growing number of railway car park operators are removing QR codes from their payment machines to protect people from this type of fraud. If you do find a site with a QR code, and it looks like it may have been tampered with, see if there is another way to pay.
The design of the QR code should match the business’s branding. If the branding or logo appears to be different, be suspicious. If you can peel a QR code sticker off, be wary as this may suggest it is fake. If the QR code is located somewhere other than on the actual metre or machine, it may also indicate it is fake.
If you do use a QR code to pay for parking, ensure it takes you to a legitimate website. Check the website address (often called a URL) and ensure it matches the name of the car park operator. Also check that the website's URL starts with https:// because the 's' in that part of the address means it’s a secure site.
If the car park provides payment via a specific parking payment app, download this from your app store and pay via this instead as it is far more secure.
Crash for cash
What is it? This type of scam has been prevalent for some years. In its most common form, it involves criminals causing an accident, usually by crashing their vehicle into another one, in order to make a fraudulent insurance claim.
How does it work? The fraudster creates a scenario that will cause an accident, such as slamming on the brakes on their car unexpectedly to make the car behind drive into it, or flashing their headlights to let your vehicle pass them and then driving into it. Sometimes they use two vehicles, with the one in front driving erratically so the driver of the one behind it can blame the first driver for causing the crash.
Another crash for cash tactic is for two criminals to stage a crash for their own cars, enabling them to make fraudulent claims for each vehicle.
There is also a variant of this scam known as clip for cash, in which the criminal will create a fake smashing sound and then claim that your car has damaged their vehicle, for example by knocking off a wing mirror, and demand money and intimidate the victim if they refuse to pay.
As well as the trauma of being involved in one of these incidents, the victims are likely to have increased insurance premiums as a result of the claim against them.
How not to be scammed Keep a good distance between your car and the one in front, and if the driver starts driving erratically increase this distance or consider taking a different route to get away from them. Also be wary at junctions and when someone flashes their lights to let your car go.
If you do think you’ve been the victim of a crash for cash scam, don’t confront the criminals there and then. Act as you would in a real accident, gathering the other party’s details, taking photos and getting statements from any witnesses. Then report the incident to the police and your insurer, stating that you think it was a staged accident. You can also call the Insurance Fraud Bureau’s Cheatline on 0800 422 0421.
What is it? Ghost car insurance brokers sell invalid car insurance policies to drivers at unrealistically low prices. The victims only discover they’ve been scammed when they try to make a claim on the policy.
How does it work? The City of London Police have recently issued a warning to young drivers about the danger of being conned by a ghost insurance broker.
The scammers search for victims via social media or word of mouth, offering fake car insurance deals that are far cheaper than legitimate policies. After making a sale, the scammers send their victims fake insurance documents, or take out a real policy but falsify important details, such as the driver’s age, address, and driving history, to bring down the premium.
How not to be scammed Only buy car insurance via bonafide companies, not via social media sites. Use online comparison websites to see which providers are offering the cheapest cover, and try some of our money saving car insurance tips, such as buying cover up to three weeks before you need it, in order to make big savings.
* Source: Lloyds Banking Group
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