A used car scam I once almost fell for

I saw someone I know selling their old car on craigslist and it reminded me of the time I sold my last car using similar means. I almost fell for a couple guys that showed up, test drove the car, then tried to buy it at a vastly discounted price. They were quite persistent and almost wore me down after a couple hours but dropped a few clues that they had done it before. It really felt like I was being conned, and I’ve been meaning to write it up since it happened years and years ago, so I might as well now.

I listed my car at $3,000, about 10-20% below what bluebook was telling me, but I knew the car had a ton of miles on it (120k) and I just wanted the thing sold (I probably would have taken anything $2500 and over). The first person to respond to the ad went like this:

  1. A guy called within an hour of posting the for sale notice.
  2. He had a sob story about his sister that needed a car very badly to get to school, and how he’s ready to buy one for his sister asap.
  3. He showed up with a friend who he said knew a lot about cars. They both rode along for the test drive.
  4. We stopped at a supermarket parking lot after driving a bit, and the mechanic friend gave the car a once over, looking under the hood and looking around the entire car
  5. Mechanic friend comes up from the tailpipe with oil all over his fingers, says the engine block must be cracked, sending oil through the system.
  6. Guy sounds kind of bummed about the “cracked engine block” and we drive back to my place where I drop them off.
  7. Before he leaves, guy offers $1,000 for the car, since his sister still really needs to get to school and his mechanic friend promises to fix the engine at a later date for a higher price.
  8. I refuse, saying it’s a ridiculous price. He offers $1200. I say no thanks, and leave.
  9. The guys hang out in front of my building, calling 15 minutes later with an offer of $1300, and waits another 15 minutes to call again with an offer of $1400. I say no both times.
  10. Three days later I sell the car for the list price, from someone paying cash and looking to refurbish the car top to bottom.
  11. Original guy calls after one week from the same number, using a different name, asking if the car is still for sale.

I remember feeling weird about this guy and with enough red flags going off I walked away from it as soon as I could, but looking back on it, it was pretty obvious this was a common con-man style approach. I bet you could run a pretty decent business lowballing people and reselling their cars immediately after for market prices.

  • He called soon after listing, trying to nab underpriced cars before anyone else has a chance to consider them
  • The sob story was supposed to prey on my emotions, to help out another person in need
  • Even though I don’t work on cars, I now know that if there really was oil being sent through the exhaust, the car would spew blue smoke when driven, which it didn’t. The oil was smeared on his fingers from another part of the car, for this bit of theater. At the time I didn’t call them on this move but I did say it sounded highly unlikely to me.
  • Friend said he could fix the engine himself for $1200 so the guy could offer less and say “well this car will do for now for my sister, but it’ll cost me so much more to fix, can you discount your price a bit more?” This is also a bit of theater.
  • The lowball offer and slightly higher offers backfired on the guy, pissing me off. I knew the car was already discounted about $500 what it should have listed for, why on earth would I take 1/2 of that still?
  • Calling me back a week later under a new name was hilarious. I don’t know if that was a mistake but it made me think he called a lot of people selling cars.

6 Comments

  • Interesting scam – I’ve only ever tried to sell a car once, and even though I was selling it for a ridiculously low price, I realized I didn’t have the stomach to deal with these sorts of transactions.
    As a side note, you write “$3000, about 10-20% what bluebook was telling me,” which had me a little puzzled – that car was worth $15 to $30k? – before I realized you omitted the word “off.”

  • Oh yeah, you’re right star, I left the word “off” there.

  • I’ve been prowling the Craigslist ads in both New York and New Jersey for the past few months and have noticed patterns of posts from obvious con artists. The common element is the car they are selling is priced far too much below Blue Book value. When you email to ask for a test drive, they reply saying the car is in Utah or some such (then why are you posting it for sale in New York?). The email chains almost always end up with them asking for a Western Union money transfer and they will “ship you” the car.
    The scary thing is people still fall for these cons. I read one thread on Kijiji (eBay’s CL clone) form some guy who sent $3500 via Western Union and then wondered why his emails to the seller were bouncing. Sorry dude, but you got scammed.

  • Just bought a car off of craigs – got it about 20-30% below what I could’ve gotten at a dealership used and didn’t have to hassle with a hard sell. Totally satisfied and will be selling my old beater next week, so thanks for the heads up on this scam. Before I bought mine I also looked at a car that was priced to good to be true – turns out it had a salvage title that the owner forgot to mention on their ad. A salvage title means the vehicle was totalled 75% or more and sold as junk and re-built – most people are advised to stay very far away from these deals unless they are a mechanic. Anyway – definitely caveat emptor, get a carfax report ($30 for a month subscription) which will tell you if your car has a salvage title and will have the odometer reading from when the car was serviced at a dealership – helpful if you suspect odometer fraud. Regardless, with a little persistence and homework it can work quite well for both the buyer and seller. And by the way, if you’re paying more than a couple of thousand for a car, i would suggest doing a bank wire to transfer the money – I would not want to carry around that kind of big cash and would want to have a little recourse (i.e. the person’s bank account number) if something went wrong.

  • Nice writeup–haven’t been scammed selling a car yet, but have come dangerously close to a different craigslist and ebay scam. Now, though, i can spot them a mile away and always send a ‘scathing email’ once I positively ID the scam..
    It’s sad people fall for it, really; only because they don’t know about the various ways it’s possible.

  • Very interesting! Never heard of this over here in the UK, but I am sure it must exists!
    Best,
    Jon

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