Larry Hoover has bought a lot of cars — sight unseen — off the internet over the years and never had a major problem.
But then the Phoenix-area resident made a deal with a Florida used car dealership that advertised a 2002 Cadillac El Dorado as being in perfect mechanical condition. The dealer persuaded Hoover to wire the $6,500 purchase price directly to him so he could avoid seller fees charged by eBay and PayPal.
Now, Hoover has a problem. He has no El Dorado. No $6,500. And he has no buyer's protection from eBay.
"It's made me very gun-shy about buying a car online," he said.
Experts say all consumers should be gun-shy about online vehicle purchases. Internet vehicle sales have flourished in the age of COVID-19, and so have the scams that accompany them, according to a recent study by the Better Business Bureau.
Investigators have identified two primary types of scams.
One involves criminals who post fake listings on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay Motors and other sites and persuade victims to wire money for cars — as well as motorcycles, ATVs, RVs and boats — that don't exist.
The other involves actual dealers who post listings that misrepresent vehicles as "pristine" or "in perfect running order." But what the buyer receives is anything but perfect. They turn out to be rebuilt vehicles that have been in crashes, don't run, have titles that can't be transferred or are completely different from the cars pictured in the listings.
Shortly after he sent $6,500 for the El Dorado, Hoover received the title in the mail that revealed "they got it from some police auction," he said. He told the dealer to keep the car and return his money, but he got neither. He has since filed a suit against the dealer.
Hoover said the ordeal has left him angry for letting himself get scammed, but he still drives a Chevrolet Corvette that he bought from a Colorado dealership through eBay with no problem two years ago.
Experts suggest following these rules to avoid getting scammed:
• Never agree to send money for cars listed on eBay Motors outside of eBay and PayPal. When buyers do that, they lose the right to seek refunds through eBay's Vehicle Protection Program.
• If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid listings with preposterously low prices.
• Don't rely on the accuracy of a vehicle history report such as Carfax or Auto Check, said Josh Feygin, a Florida-based attorney who specializes in claims against dealerships. Those reports can be weeks old and not include information on recent problems, he said.
• Investigate the dealer's online presence and look for reviews. "Anyone can buy good reviews," Feygin said. "Detailed negative reviews that tell similar tales are the most reliable. If a dealer has little or no presence online, that could mean the company has recently changed its name to dissociate itself from multiple negative reviews."
• Spend the money on a vehicle inspection. Obviously, don't allow the seller to arrange the inspection. Do an online search for "independent vehicle inspection services" and the city where the vehicle is located. Have the report delivered to you.
• Have the seller take digital photos of the front and back of the title, along with a photo of the vehicle's VIN number. Make sure they match. If the title is branded as salvage, it typically means the vehicle has been in a wreck that the insurer considered not worth repairing.
• Don't let your excitement cloud your common sense. It's easy to forget the rules when you become excited about finding the perfect vehicle.
Hoover says he'll approach any future online purchases with a healthy paranoia.
"I always thought I'd never fall for a scam," he said. "No matter how safe you might think the transaction is, or how fraud-savvy you think you are, you can still get scammed."