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RAC Editorial

Buyer beware: used car sales scams explained

07 Aug 2012 at 14:24

Car buying scams cost consumers around £3 million a year. If you’re out to buy a second-hand car, you need to keep your wits about you. There are plenty of dodgy sellers that won’t hesitate to rip you off - One in three cars on UK roads have hidden history.

Many of the scams often appear alarmingly genuine – they would, as this is how the criminals will entice you. So, to help make sure you’re not caught out, we’ve put together a list of the most common car buying cons. Hopefully, they should help ensure you don’t dragged into a dodgy deal where you lose your money.

The virtual vehicle

The virtual vehicle scam involves fake websites that offer to handle and look after your money. Once you’ve expressed an interest in a motor – often located abroad – a third party will ‘handle’ the transfer of funds, releasing the cash once the vehicle turns up. You can guess the rest.

ADVICE: don’t ever hand over money to anyone or any company that you do not know. Don’t pay anything until you’ve seen the vehicle, had a clear HPI check and are happy with the arrangement.

The vehicle match

This scam works by approaching vendors and promising to find them a definite buyer for their vehicle. You’ll get cold-called with a promise that the intermediary has a buyer lined up for your car: all you need to do is pay a one-off up-front fee. It’s that simple. Only there is no buyer and you lose your money - Car buying scam: sellers advised to be cautious.

ADVICE: Always be sceptical if you’re asked for money in advance and never give any details – credit/debit card or otherwise – out over the phone. Don’t be pressured into anything. Take a step back and think: if you suspect anything suspicious, put the phone down.

The stolen car

It’s amazing the number of secondhand buyers that don’t check fundamental aspects of a vehicle. If a designer bag didn’t have the proper label but cost hundreds of pounds, it’d set alarm bells ringing. The same is true for cars. So, ensure the chassis number is present and has not been ground away or replaced, as well as matching the V5C registration certificate to it.

ADVICE: if something doesn’t tally, there’s probably a reason for it. Trust your gut instinct and walk away. Unless it’s the rarest of vehicles, there’ll be plenty more available. An HPI check can help here too, confirming if there are any ‘markers’ on the car.

The clocked car

It sounds fairly harmless but winding back a car’s mileage – known as clocking – is highly illegal. The prevalence of this scam is not helped by the ease with which modern electronic odometers can be ‘corrected’ backwards. Most cars average around 10,000 miles per year so high wear on seat squabs, tatty pedal rubbers and steering wheels, and a soggy feeling on the road are all indicators that your potential new vehicle is hiding more miles than its clocks show.  How to spot a clocked car.

ADVICE: ask to see the full service history, if the last service was some time ago, it’s likely that the history to date has been omitted and the car travelled more miles than the seller is advertising. Digits out of line on analogue milometers and heavy stone chips can be a sign of clocking, too.

The cloned car

Spotting a cloned car is difficult. Be wary of any vehicle being sold without a V5C – this could indicate it is using stolen number plates from an identical car that don’t match its registration certificate. Even if a V5C is present, scrutinise it carefully: many are forged. Again, an HPI check can help confirm a vehicle’s identity, cross-referencing a vehicle’s index against its chassis number.

ADVICE: this is probably the hardest scam to spot, but be vigilant. If you buy a cloned car you stand to lose your vehicle AND your money when the car’s true identity is found out. Again, ask to see the service history, analysing if it tallies with the indicated age of the car. If you’re not sure, as always, walk away.


If you’re in the market for a used car, make sure you follow some key steps: be vigilant – don’t always trust what the seller claims. Never give out any details or hand over any cash until you have seen the vehicle and are happy with the transaction.

Finally, for a few pounds, an HPI check can confirm or quash your suspicions, potentially saving you thousands in the process.

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