How to Spot Car Scams on Craigslist

Co-authored by wikiHow Staff | Reader-Approved

Updated: January 4, 2020 | Reader-Approved

Craigslist scams are unfortunately pretty common, so it’s important to be extra vigilant if you want to buy a car from a seller on Craigslist. You can protect yourself from scams by evaluating the ad carefully before you look any further. If the ad seems legit, evaluate the seller next. If they seem trustworthy, assess the car to see if you want to buy it. Never put down any amount of money on a car before you have seen it as this is a common way that people get scammed on Craigslist.

Method 1 of 3:
Identifying Fraudulent Ads

  1. 1
    Watch out for ads with a very low or unusual price. If the price is significantly lower than you’d expect it to be, this is a red flag. Check the Kelly Blue Book price to get a ballpark range for what the price ought to be. If it’s considerably lower, such as 25% less or more, then the ad is likely a scam. A very specific price can also be a red flag, such as $2,347 or something along these lines.[1]
    • If the seller suggests shipping the car to you for an additional charge or including shipping in the sale price, this is likely a scam.[2]
  2. 2
    Check the listing for severe grammar issues. If the car’s description is poorly written and difficult to understand, it might have been written by a scammer. Pass on any cars with descriptions that are chock full of grammatical, spelling, or other errors.[3]
    • For example, steer clear of an ad that reads something like, “new sidan for weel driv plus exxtras.”

    Tip: The newer the listing, the higher the chances are that it’s a scam. If you see that the listing is only a few minutes old, pass on it as it has not been up long enough for moderators to flag it as a scam. If it’s still up in a few hours, give it another look.[4]

  3. 3
    Perform a reverse image search of the car photo. Copy the image’s url and paste it into Google’s image search, or download and save the image and then drag and drop it into the search bar after clicking on the camera button next to the search bar. Then, review the results to determine if the same photo is posted elsewhere. If you find multiple listings that use the same image, the ad is likely a scam.[5]
    • By doing a reverse image search, you may even find that the image is a stock photo and not an image of a real car for sale.
  4. 4
    Copy and paste the car description into Google to spot duplicates. Place the description in quotation marks to find duplicate listings. Some scammers will post multiple ads using the exact same language, so this is an easy way to weed out fake ads.[6]
    • Be wary if the language is very similar to other ads as well. Look at other aspects of the ad to check for red flags.
  5. 5
    Compare the price of the car in the ad with the website listing. If the seller also has a website or Facebook page, make sure that the prices listed for the car are the same on both sites. If the price listed on one of the outlets is lower, negotiate from this price instead of from the higher price.[7]
    • For example, if the car is listed for $2,500 on the seller’s Facebook page and $3,000 on the Craigslist post, negotiate down from $2,500 rather than from $3,000.
  6. 6
    Email the seller if there’s no location or phone number listed in the ad. The ad should clearly indicate where the car is located and provide a contact phone number for the seller. If there’s no location or phone number listed, this may be a red flag. However, you can email the seller to see if they will provide a location and phone number. If they refuse to tell you where the car is located of give you a phone number, this is likely a scam.[8]
    • Another red flag is a location that doesn’t make sense, such as “in the mountains of Orlando.”

Method 2 of 3:
Evaluating the Seller

  1. 1
    Be especially wary of sellers who tell a sad story. Sob stories are often used by scammers to rush a sale, so be wary if the seller tells you one or mentions other circumstances unrelated to the car. For example, if the seller tells you a story about being laid off and needing money quickly to pay their bills, this is a red flag. Other things to watch out for include:[9]
    • Saying they’re about to be deployed and need to sell the car in a hurry.
    • Claiming they have other buyers interested, so they need a decision right away.
    • Calling you repeatedly to ask if you’ve made a decision.
  2. 2
    Avoid sellers who claim to be handling the sale for someone else. If the seller says they’re handling the sale of the car for a neighbor, elderly parent, or someone else, be cautious. This is often a red flag and it may indicate that the car was stolen. Always ask to see the title and seller’s ID to ensure that the car you’re looking at belongs to the person who is selling it.[10]
    • A seller may also claim to have less knowledge about the vehicle under the veil of this story, which could result in not getting clear answers to your questions about the car.
  3. 3
    Research any website that the seller directs you to for payment. The safest option is to pay the seller with cash, so be cautious if they direct you to a website to make your payment. Sellers will often provide an escrow website address to increase the buyer’s sense of security, but this does not mean they are not scamming you. Evaluate the site thoroughly to ensure that it is a legitimate website.[11]
    • Avoid sellers that claim to be associated with eBay or eBay Motors as well. This is a common scam and they may even send you emails and links to websites that look like they’re coming from eBay.[12]
  4. 4
    Avoid curbstone dealers who suggest meeting at their houses. A curbstone dealer is someone who sells a car in front of their house. The person might be a dealer with an actual car lot, but they may move a car to their house and park it out front to increase the perceived value of the car. People tend to be less critical of cars that appear to be being sold by the previous owner, especially if the person lives in a nice neighborhood.[13]
    • If you do decide to look at a car at someone’s house, bring a friend or family member along with you. If you don’t know much about cars, bring someone along who knows about cars.
  5. 5
    Call the seller to evaluate their knowledge and professionalism. Talking on the phone with a seller is a good way to feel out their character and ask more questions about the car. Ask about the condition of the car, any issues it has, and request a test drive if you’re interested.[14]
    • As an added bonus, some sellers will also be willing to reduce the price further if they perceive you as a serious buyer.

    Warning: Scammers will often disconnect their phones after you make payment, so just because a seller has a phone number does not mean they are trustworthy. Consider other factors along with your impression of them.[15]

  6. 6
    Meet the seller in a public place to conduct the final sale transaction. If you decide to buy a car from a Craigslist seller, it’s best to make your payment with cash and in person. Request to meet with the person in a public place or at the bank to ensure that you will have witnesses if the person attempts to rob you.[16]
    • Never pay the person using a wire transfer or using Western Union as this is a common scam tactic.

Method 3 of 3:
Assessing the Vehicle

  1. 1
    Refuse to pay any amount of money for a car you’ve never seen. If you haven’t seen the car, it may not exist. Stick to cars that are close enough to your location that you can go look at them. Avoid cars that are located in another state or country, or even vehicles that are a few hours away. Try to purchase only from local dealers so that you can bring the car in to them if there’s a problem.[17]
    • Be especially wary of sellers who say they will ship the vehicle to you.[18]
  2. 2
    Compare the number on the odometer to other age-related features. The average person puts 13,000 miles (21,000?km) per year on a vehicle, so a car that is 3 years old would likely have around 40,000 miles (64,000?km) on it. If the car has considerably fewer miles, then the seller may have tampered with the odometer. Note the appearance of the interior and the condition of the tires. If the interior or tires are well-worn, then the car’s odometer may be inaccurate.[19]
    • Keep in mind that elderly people and teenagers tend to drive around 8,000 miles (13,000?km) per year, so this could also account for lower mileage. Ask questions about the previous owner if the mileage seems low.
  3. 3
    Search for the car’s history using the vehicle identification number. Scammers may provide you with a forged report that leaves important details out of the car’s history. Do not accept a report that the seller provides. Instead, look up the car’s history using the vehicle identification number (VIN). You can search the VIN on a website like Carfax and get a full report.[20]
    • Be wary of any cars that were involved in accidents or that had ongoing issues.

    Warning: Never access the car history report using a special web address that the seller provides. This is often a scam to make you think you’re getting the real report.[21]

  4. 4
    Request to take the car on a longer test drive if the seller rushes it. Scammers often try to avoid letting potential buyers take the car for a full test drive since this may reveal issues with the car. If the seller tries to rush the test drive, tell them you would like to drive it a little longer and in different conditions to see how well it works. If they say no or try to convince you that a longer test drive is not necessary, don’t buy the car.[22]
    • During the test drive, drive the car at slow and fast speeds, pay attention to how well it brakes and turns, and note any unusual sounds.
  5. 5
    Ask to get the car assessed by your mechanic before you buy it. Unless you are car savvy yourself, it can be difficult to spot issues with a car. Bring along a friend who knows a lot about cars or ask the seller to meet you at your mechanic’s garage to check the car for any serious issues.[23]
    • For example, a mechanic will be better equipped to check the engine for major issues and tell if the seller may have tampered with the car in any way.

Community Q&A

Add New Question
  • Question
    Lady selling a car claims husband died, and car brings bad memories. She says the car is ready to ship, and said make transaction through eBay where they'll ship me the car for testing. I have 5 days to decide if I want it or not, then after the 5 days, I pay the money. Does this sound/seem legitimate?
    Community Answer
    No, not legitimate. Any time a seller allows you to have the item without receiving your payment first -- be aware. There's a scam lurking behind this, designed to take your money without you knowing who they are.
  • Question
    Is it safe to buy a vehicle from craigslist using iTunes prepaid cards through Apple Pay?
    Community Answer
    This is a scam! Once you scratch off the back and give the "seller" the code, the money is gone and you can not recover it!
  • Question
    What can I do when they are harassing me?
    Community Answer
    You should block them, and tell someone who can stop them, such as the police. To prevent this from happening again, spread the word. Make other people aware of the scams.
  • Question
    Is only listing a number and details about the car a sign of a scam?
    Community Answer
    Ask the lister for his price, transaction details and photos of the car. If he won't provide these details, it is likely a scam.
  • Question
    How can I make sure I'm not getting scammed when selling a car?
    Community Answer
    ONLY accept cash or a bank check that you cash at their bank, not yours. Don't allow anyone to take your vehicle anywhere, tell them they must bring a mechanic to your place if they wish to consult one. Always have a witness present when selling/negotiating to avoid disputes.
  • Question
    If a seller's cell phone area code differs from his physical residence area, but the vehicle's information is local, could the seller be running a scam?
    Community Answer
    Anything is possible. However, if the seller is using a mobile phone, the area code my be from their former place of residence.
  • Question
    Someone wants to make a payment to buy a car using Apple. Is this a scam?
    Community Answer
    Using iTunes cards for payment is a scam. They will require you to scratch off the strip on the back and deliver the codes using a fraudulent email or phone number. Once the "seller" has the codes, the money is gone.
  • Question
    I have a woman wanting to give me a 2009 Toyota Camry after I posted a wanted ad for a "dirt cheap car." However, she is not asking for me to give her money, she wants me to meet her and donate what money I do have to a pastor. Blessing or scam?
    Canh Vuong
    Community Answer
    While this could be legitimate, she could have donated the vehicle to the pastor/church for them to sell themselves. Proceed with caution.
  • Question
    I want to buy a car but the seller's name is not on the title. Can I rely on him?
    Community Answer
    You should ask him about the name on the title, and why the car is not in his name. A title unsigned by the owner should not be released. You could be accepting liabilities that you are not responsible for. For instance, the vehicle and the title could be stolen. Proceed with caution.
  • Question
    Should I give a potential buyer the VIN to run on Carfax?
    Community Answer
    No, the customer could be trying to steal the car, I recommend doing an HPI check yourself and sending a screen shot.
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      About This Article

      Co-Authored By:
      wikiHow Staff Editor
      This article was co-authored by our trained team of editors and researchers who validated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness. Together, they cited information from 23 references. wikiHow's Content Management Team carefully monitors the work from our editorial staff to ensure that each article meets our high standards.
      How helpful is this?
      Co-authors: 11
      Updated: January 4, 2020
      Thanks to all authors for creating a page that has been read 255,290 times.

      Reader Success Stories

      • RB

        Ray Baumann

        Aug 23, 2017

        "Saw on Craig's List a car for sale at a great price, looked up the value and it should have sold for 4x, first red flag. Then will ship for free via the Military to wherever you want, red flag two. Then E-Bay will insure the deal. Asked to see listing at E-Bay... nothing. Then I saw this online and confirmed it was a scam, thanks!"..." more
        Rated this article:
      • MR

        M. Robertson

        May 30, 2017

        "I have been looking for information about a potential buyer who would like to pay me through PayPal, and another asked for the VIN of our car. Both seemed a little off; nothing huge, just seemed strange, so I did some research. This article helped. Thanks. "..." more
        Rated this article:
      • LM

        Laura McNatt

        Aug 3, 2016

        "Was looking to purchase car from an individual on Craigslist, but they wanted to use eBay Services. I decided to do some research and I'm glad I did. The seller was using tactics 1, 4, and 5. So glad I came across this post!"..." more
      • AR

        Amy Romero

        Sep 7, 2016

        "I'm pretty sure I almost got scammed. It seemed too good to be true. Military deployment. I just had to double check. Payment to be sent thru prepaid Visa. I had asked why can't you use credit or debit cards."..." more
      • JM

        James Mantz

        Oct 19, 2016

        "I am in the process of looking for a used car, and the comments here were most helpful. We have been looking on Craig's List and can see how easy it would be to fall into one of these scams."..." more
      • CW

        Carol Watson

        Aug 8, 2017

        "Daughter saw a Nissan '12 listed for $1500. This article just saved my daughter, who is going through a lot right now, her savings. Thank God this article was available for us!"..." more
        Rated this article:
      • CR

        Curtis Ray

        Feb 1, 2017

        "Found a lady selling a food truck on Craigslist. She gave me a sob story about the truck, the same story that was being warned about on this wikiHow site. Good-to-know info."..." more
      • AR

        Amy Romero

        Sep 7, 2016

        "I almost got scammed by Craiglist. Everything this article sampled these people tried using. Military deployment. Car ship and 5 days to try out. Prepaid Visa thru EBay."..." more
      • GC

        Glenna Calton

        May 22, 2017

        "Let me know that I should not tell the truth about why I need to sell my car, too much detail, etc. Guess that is why my car hasn't had a hit, or even inquiry."..." more
        Rated this article:
      • HE

        Heather Englehart

        Oct 18, 2018

        "My son was going to purchase a truck without knowing all the warning signs. This article saved him a lot of grief and money."..." more
      • A


        Feb 1, 2017

        "I'm so glad I read this, because I got the same email from some lady that said her husband died. Be careful of this scam."..." more
      • F


        Oct 15, 2017

        "Same thing happened to me. When I asked for an eBay link to the sale, nothing. Figured it was a scam."
        Rated this article:
      • ST

        S. Tagle

        Jul 11, 2017

        "I was looking at a Craigslist ad that had eBay protection but unusually low price. This helped. "
        Rated this article:
      • GB

        Glenn B.

        Jan 20, 2017

        "I read about the same scam I was wondering about on Craigslist from your website. Thank you."
      • J


        Aug 24, 2017

        "Sounds like the same person I have been trying to get a hold of. Same sad story. "
      • EJ

        Emmie Jackson

        May 26, 2017

        "The different scams. Scams need to be stopped."
      • A


        Aug 11, 2017

        "It was very helpful, thanks!"
        Rated this article:
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