How to Avoid Common Scams When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car can be an excellent way to save money and get a reliable vehicle, but it also comes with risks. Scams are prevalent in the used car market, and if you’re not careful, you could end up with a lemon, lose money, or even become a victim of identity theft. Here are some common scams to watch out for and tips on how to avoid them.

1. Odometer Fraud

Odometer fraud involves tampering with the mileage reading to make a car appear less used than it actually is. This scam can significantly inflate the car’s value, leading you to pay more than it’s worth and face unexpected maintenance issues down the line.

How to Avoid It:

  • Check the car’s maintenance records to ensure the mileage matches up with the recorded services.
  • Use online resources like Carfax or AutoCheck to verify the car’s history.
  • Look for signs of wear and tear that don’t match the mileage, such as a worn-out steering wheel, pedals, or seats.

2. Title Washing

Title washing involves altering a car’s title to hide its history, such as past damage from an accident, flood, or theft. This scam makes a car appear clean when it may have significant underlying issues.

How to Avoid It:

  • Always request a vehicle history report from a reputable service.
  • Check the title status and history through your state’s DMV or online databases.
  • Be wary of titles from states known for lax title regulations.

3. Curbstoning

Curbstoning is when unlicensed dealers pose as private sellers to avoid legal requirements and inspections. These sellers often sell cars with hidden problems or those salvaged from accidents.

How to Avoid It:

  • Ask to see the seller’s ID and compare it to the name on the title.
  • Be cautious if the seller wants to meet in a public place rather than at their home.
  • Avoid sellers who don’t provide proper documentation or who seem reluctant to share the car’s history.

4. VIN Cloning

VIN cloning involves using a stolen or fraudulent Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to hide the car’s true identity. This scam can result in buying a stolen car or one with a problematic history.

How to Avoid It:

  • Verify the VIN on the car matches the number on the title and registration documents.
  • Check the VIN in multiple places on the car, such as the dashboard, driver’s door, and engine block.
  • Run the VIN through a vehicle history report to check for discrepancies.

5. Phantom Cars

In this scam, fraudsters list cars that don’t exist or aren’t available for sale, often at prices too good to be true. They typically ask for a deposit or full payment upfront, only to disappear with your money.

How to Avoid It:

  • Be suspicious of deals that seem too good to be true.
  • Never send money before seeing the car in person.
  • Insist on meeting the seller and inspecting the car before making any payments.

6. Fake Escrow Services

Fake escrow services involve setting up a bogus third-party account where the old car buyer is supposed to send money, supposedly to protect both parties. In reality, the scammer controls the account and absconds with the funds.

How to Avoid It:

  • Use only well-known, reputable escrow services.
  • Verify the escrow service’s legitimacy by checking reviews and contacting them directly.
  • Avoid sellers who insist on using a specific escrow service that you haven’t heard of.

7. Salvage Scams

Salvage scams involve selling cars that have been declared total losses by insurance companies due to severe damage. These cars are often unsafe and unreliable but are sold at a discount without disclosing their true condition.

How to Avoid It:

  • Check the car’s title for any salvage or rebuilt status.
  • Get a comprehensive vehicle history report.
  • Have the car inspected by a trusted mechanic before purchase.

8. Incomplete or Missing Paperwork

Some sellers might provide incomplete or fake paperwork, making it difficult to register the car in your name. This can lead to legal issues and the inability to prove ownership.

How to Avoid It:

  • Ensure the seller provides a clear title, bill of sale, and any other required documents.
  • Double-check the authenticity of the paperwork with your local DMV.
  • Avoid sellers who are hesitant to provide proper documentation.

9. Online Payment Scams

Scammers often use fake websites or payment methods to trick buyers into sending money. These fraudulent sites can look very convincing, making it easy to fall for their traps.

How to Avoid It:

  • Use secure payment methods and avoid wire transfers or cash transactions.
  • Verify the legitimacy of the website and the seller before making any payments.
  • Be cautious with sellers who push for immediate payment or offer vague explanations about the payment process.

10. Bait-and-Switch Tactics

In this scam, the seller advertises a car at an attractive price but then claims it’s no longer available and tries to sell a different, often more expensive or lower-quality vehicle.

How to Avoid It:

  • Be skeptical of deals that seem exceptionally good.
  • Insist on seeing and test-driving the advertised car.
  • Walk away if the seller changes the terms or tries to pressure you into buying a different car.

Cash for Cars: Maximizing Value and Avoiding Scams

Selling your used or old car for cash can be a quick and convenient way to dispose of a vehicle, especially if it’s no longer running or in poor condition. However, the cash for cars industry also has its share of scams and pitfalls. Here’s how to maximize the value of your car while staying safe and avoiding common scams.


Buying a used car doesn’t have to be a stressful or risky experience. By being aware of common scams and taking proactive steps to verify the car’s history and the seller’s credibility, you can protect yourself from fraud and make a purchase with confidence. Always trust your instincts—if something feels off, it’s better to walk away and continue your search for the right vehicle. Taking these precautions will help ensure that your investment in a used car is a wise and secure one.