How to avoid used car scams: key tips for car buyers

Amy Bairstow
Amy Bairstow
How to avoid used car scams: key tips for car buyers

While it’s easier than ever to find a used car online in Australia, it’s also essential to look out for used car scams. The ACCC’s Scamwatch received 761 reports of second-hand vehicle scams in the first half of 2023 alone, at a collective cost of around $1.1 million.

So how exactly do these scams occur? And most importantly, how do you avoid getting swindled while shopping for a used car? Let’s look at what you need to know.

What are the most common used car scams?

Unfortunately it’s possible to come across car sale scams via Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace and other popular platforms. Here are some of the key scam types to be aware of.

The ‘too good to be true’ scams

One of the most common private car selling scams is to simply sell a car that never materialises. Fake sellers list a car at an unbeatable price, then give a reason they can’t meet in person. Some say they’re working FIFO. Others say they’re about to be deployed overseas and must sell urgently.

The scammers will often request payment through a bank transfer or third-party website. Once payment is made the seller vanishes, leaving a devastated buyer in their wake.

The dubious makeover scams

Another of the most common car purchasing scams involves deceiving buyers through a shiny new coat of paint or a misleading odometer.

Odometer tampering has been an issue for decades, but it turns out scammers can also tamper with digital odometers. In 2022 police busted a group in Queensland after they’d allegedly wound the kilometres back on hundreds of cars.

In some cases cars are given a new paint job or new interiors to hide the fact they’ve been damaged by fire or water, or have been written off after a serious crash.

The selling stolen vehicle scams

Another fraudulent car sale scam involves selling stolen vehicles, sometimes before they’re registered as stolen.

In 2023 a student in WA bought a Holden Astra at a great price. He did the right thing by getting a Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) report beforehand, which shows if a car has been stolen, written off or has debt attached. Unfortunately, police later came knocking on his door. It turned out the car had been stolen the day of purchase, so there wasn’t enough time for the theft to show up on the PPSR report.

The service book scams

This car selling scam involves either stealing or replicating car service books to give the impression of a flawless service history. In some cases even experienced car dealers have fallen for this deception, unintentionally passing the vehicle to buyers. This is where a thorough check of the car is important, to ensure the service history matches expected wear and tear.

How can you tell if someone is scamming you?

There might be no single glaring sign, but here are some of the red flags to look for when buying a used vehicle:

  • A price that seems far too low for the expected market value
  • A seller who can’t meet in person, or refuses to give their location
  • Pushy sellers, or sellers who give a story to evoke urgency or sympathy
  • Being asked to send money through a third party or unknown platform
  • A suspiciously new paint job or interior that doesn’t seem to match the car’s age
  • Signs of water or fire damage in or on the car, and
  • If sellers never answer their phone, or if their phone number is disconnected.

How to avoid scammers when buying a used car

There are a few simple ways you can boost your chances of a successful used car purchase in Australia.

Get the PPSR report

$2 is all it takes to get a report from the government’s Personal Property Securities Register, and doing so could help you save thousands. Enter the 17-character vehicle identification number (VIN) of the car you’re considering and the report should outline most major issues. If all looks well, check that the VIN matches the physical car as you make the final purchase.

Trust your gut

Even the smartest people can get scammed. Scammers can seem very genuine and can offer reasons to explain away almost anything. If something doesn’t feel right, think twice about the transaction.

Buy from a reputable source

You can buy from a private seller or a car dealer when purchasing a used car. Private sales can involve a lot of trust and intuition, and there aren’t many ways to check who you’re dealing with. Used car dealers can vary in reputation, so it’s important to research those customer reviews and verify their contact details.

A third option is to buy a car online from Carma. We’re a little different in some vital ways:

  • Every car is thoroughly tested and inspected by a team of qualified technicians.
  • We provide a 7-day returns on every sale. So whether you want to take your new car to your own mechanic for a thorough check-over, or simply change your mind in that first week, you can return it for a complete refund.
  • You can call and email us during our extensive open hours.
  • You can pick up the car from our location in Alexandria, Sydney or we can deliver your new purchase to you.
  • You also get a 3-month warranty on any car you purchase with Carma.

Is Carma safe to buy from?

Rest assured that Carma is a licensed Motor Dealer and Motor Repairer in NSW. You can find our licence numbers at the bottom of our website, and you can always double-check our credentials via the Service NSW licence verification page.

Perhaps the best proof, though, is the hundreds of customer reviews that show what it’s really like to buy a vehicle with Carma. Joel, who bought a used Subaru Forester with us, sums it up pretty well:

[The] whole process from when I picked out the car to receiving it was about 2-3 business days. Amazing customer service and very prompt responses with emails and calls.

And in the words of Ruben:

The customer service throughout the entire purchasing process is excellent. They proved to be professional, clear and honest about the information they provided.

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