Contact 2: Protecting yourself from online car and shipping scams

ST. LOUIS – “If it can stop one person. If it keeps a few of our hard-earned dollars out of these thief’s hands, then maybe it was worth it.”

Margaret Grapperhaus was shopping online for a used RV when she learned firsthand how criminals can use Craigslist and other legitimate websites to lure consumers and steal their money. Across the country, there are thousands of victims just like her.

A growing number of these cases involve the seller suggesting the transaction be completed using a bogus third-party service to handle escrow and vehicle shipment. In March, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning about “Springfield Shippers” after consumers complained the business and 17 other similar websites, all claiming to be Missouri-based, took wire payments and never delivered products.

“The money isn’t actually going to an escrow company or a shipping company, it’s going straight to the pocket of a scammer,” said Carroll Lachnit, Consumer Advice Editor for Edmunds. “The hallmark of it is first and foremost, a car that’s offered at a very, very, attractively low price.”

Mix that with professional looking ads and limited options for contacting the seller, and Lachnit says you have the makings of a slick scam.

“Don’t ever use a link that a seller sends to you. If they’re proposing using an escrow company or a shipping service, you as the buyer should be the person that determines what that escrow company or shipping service should be,” said Lachnit.

“There were lots of red flags I should’ve caught and I didn’t. The bigger frustration is no one can help,” said Grapprehaus.

BBB offers the following tips on how to recognize a potential online vehicle scam:

The seller shares a sad story and can’t meet face-to-face or let you inspect the vehicle. The seller recently has lost a loved one, and the vehicle brings back bad memories. Or the seller has moved, is a soldier deployed overseas or is working overseas. That’s why he or she has to sell the vehicle quickly (and at a loss) and/or why it’s crated up or stored and not available for inspection. Don’t trust photos, as they can be obtained easily on the internet. Insist on meeting the seller and inspecting the vehicle before releasing any money.

The vehicle costs around $5,000 but is valued higher. Scammers lure buyers with prices that are a fraction of the vehicle’s book price so buyers will act quickly. Scammers may say that shipping costs will be paid by the seller, even if you return the vehicle. Deals that seem “too good to be true” usually are.

A third party handles the money and/or shipping. In an effort to appear legitimate, the seller tells you that the third party, whether eBay or an escrow service, will refund your money if you don’t like the vehicle.

The shipping company uses a professional-looking website with no verifiable physical location. Check the website’s domain registration on a website such as Whois.com. Just because a website, email or invoice looks official does not mean that it is. Even caller ID can be faked. Read business profiles at bbb.org, and search online for complaints or reviews of the shipper you are considering. If the company doesn’t have an internet presence other than a new website, that’s a warning sign.

The shipping website does not post the DOT Motor Carrier Number. Companies that are required to have a Motor Carrier Number but do not are not authorized to operate in the United States. The company should post the number on the website and provide it over the phone if asked. Verify the company at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s SAFER website.

Payment is by wire transfer. Scammers avoid payment by personal or cashier’s check, PayPal, credit card or any other traceable method. Payment by anonymous wire transfer to someone you never met face-to-face is a red flag for fraud. Pay by credit card whenever possible in case you need to challenge the payment.