Advice

Buying or selling a car online: 12 red flags to look for

Your guide to not getting scammed.
- shares

The prospect of buying a new car is an exciting one, but before you can get to the fun part, there's always a fair amount of admin involved.

Whether you're trying to offload your old car to a new owner, or opting to shop for a used car online, you'll need plenty of paperwork, some spare time and a discerning eye in order to survive the process.

While it's harder to track used car sales than new car sales, at last check automobile auction company Manheim found used car prices in Australia were on the decline, with prices typically tapering lower toward the end of the year.

But when buying or selling a car online, getting a fair price can be the least of your worries, with scammers, personal safety and quality all in question.

"Fake advertisements can appear on genuine car sales websites, in online classifieds and online auction sites," Western Australia's Consumer Protection Commissioner Lanie Chopping told CarAdvice.

"This includes scams which offer non-existent second-hand vehicles for lower than expected prices."

To help you safeguard against potential disaster (and any internet weirdos) we've compiled a list of telltale red flags to avoid when embarking on a journey into the world of online used car sales. Godspeed.

1. Surprisingly low prices

The saying goes that if it's too good to be true, it probably is – and nowhere is this more pertinent than in the case of used car prices.

Look at similar cars online to gauge a rough pricing guide and compare any potential purchases against this.

If the vehicle seems suspiciously affordable, especially when you consider the year it was made and the kilometres it's alleged to have covered, you should arrange an in-person inspection. (Indeed, you should always inspect in person, where possible.)

If the seller resists this, a spokesperson for the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) advises, "it may be worth doing some further research or walking away from the deal entirely".

2. An unusually low odometer reading

If the car's year doesn't align with the number of kilometres it's claimed to have travelled, you have reason to be suspicious.

Tampering with the odometer or lying about kilometres travelled are both common practices employed by scammers.

Thankfully, they can be easily fact-checked by getting the car independently checked by a mechanic.

"Ask your state road assistance association or motor traders association for a recommendation," the Australian Financial Security Authority advises.

"Ask [the person conducting the inspection] to confirm the identity of the vehicle by checking the VIN or chassis number has not been tampered with. Check the vehicle’s service manual for records of odometer readings to ensure they are correct and consistent."

3. People who won't do phone calls

Legitimate sellers or buyers should have no issue talking on the phone, while scammers might try to restrict communication solely to text messages or emails.

Sometimes the simplest way to ascertain whether someone is a scammer is to call their listed number with your own number blocked – if it goes through to someone who isn't the seller, it's safe to say you have cause for concern.

4. Interstate or overseas sellers

"Be cautious when dealing with overseas or interstate sellers," Commissioner Chopping said.

"When you purchase goods online from overseas or another state, overseas consumer protection laws may not apply or may only offer limited protection."

Each state also has different laws around registering vehicles that have been previously written off, so you may want to check in with the relevant state and territory transport authority (full list here).

5. Sellers who offer to bring the car to you

An increasingly common scam involves a seller offering to transport a vehicle interstate in an unusually short amount of time.

They will often offer to do this via a third party business called carguidemoving.com.au and will request the full cost of the vehicle upfront.

If this happens to you, contact your local police immediately.

6. Strange email addresses

"Beware some scammers will send so-called ‘spoof emails’, which appear to be from PayPal and contain a link that directs you to a fake version of the PayPal site," Commissioner Chopping advises.

"Always verify the sender of the email, as scammers will use a legitimate name to hide the fake email address behind it."

7. Sellers in a hurry

If a seller is looking to offload their car quickly because they’re “relocating”, keep your wits about you.

One of the more common scams involves a seller claiming to be in the defence force, telling buyers they are being deployed soon and thus have lowered the price of their vehicle in order to sell it faster.

8. Meetings at someone's home

This one is obvious. Approach in-person meetings with caution by having a friend or family member accompany you and arranging to meet in a neutral public place.

Avoid giving out your home or work address where possible.

And if you're test-driving a vehicle or giving it to a potential buyer for a test drive, double-check that your insurance covers you in the event of an accident.

9. Weird payment methods

Cash, credit card or bank transfer are the preferred methods of payment when buying or selling a used cars.

"If buying a car online, then credit card, or secure payment systems such as PayPal would be the desirable option. In these circumstances the consumer would be able to dispute the payment with their financial institution and apply for a chargeback of the money," Commissioner Chopping says.

"Never send money by ‘wire transfer’. Scammers use wire transfer services like Western Union or MoneyGram to get money fast and once the money has gone, it has gone!"

10. A dodgy PPSR check

One of the most helpful things you can do to ensure a safe and reliable sale (as either a buyer or seller) is to have a Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) check.

This will set you back only $2 and is an official government used-car check that will tell you if your vehicle has been previously written off or stolen, or is on the Takata airbag recall list.

"If you’re buying a car, do a search the day of purchase – preferably right before you buy," the PPSR advises.

You can conduct a PPSR check here.

11. Bad photos

This one may seem self-explanatory, but photos that are limited, unclear, taken from far away or captured incredibly up-close certainly warrant a follow-up request for more.

And if damage is mentioned in the ad, you're within your rights to request detailed images of said damage.

12. Text message-only exchanges

Scammers will sometimes target online sellers by pretending to be a potential buyer.

These scammers will send an SMS requesting a response via email. The SMS sender will claim to be highly interested in the listing and often will be prepared to offer a large sum of money.

These messages are usually from overseas scammers who want to communicate via email or text, so they can translate correspondence online.

The scammer will likely ask for the seller’s PayPal details and will subsequently share a fake receipt claiming to have transferred too much money and request for it to be returned.

When in doubt, ask to chat to a potential buyer over the phone.

MORE: Advice articles