Avoid used car scams

Richard Yarrow / 13 November 2015

Don't get ripped off by criminals. Follow our tips to avoid the scams when buying or selling a secondhand car.



Actor George Cole may no longer be with us, but his most famous character – Arthur Daley, the unscrupulous car dealer from TV drama Minder – lives on in the real world. The automotive retail sector has worked hard to clean up its reputation since Arthur first appeared on our screens in 1979, but the ‘under the arches’ used car trader has not totally gone away.

Many buyers will go to a dealer because it gives them a warranty and somewhere to return to if they’re dissatisfied. 

Even then, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the transaction and lose sight of what’s important – getting value for money and not getting ripped off. 

You need to protect yourself accordingly and here’s our advice.

Buying a new car? Seven things to you need to know. 

Buying used cars

Don't go it alone

Two heads are always better than one, so when you’re looking at a car for sale, go with a friend. If you don’t know much about cars, take along someone who does.

Always, always, always get a vehicle history check carried out because it can reveal any adverse information about the car. HPI is the best known provider but there are others.

Arrange your viewing carefully

Never view a car for sale in a neutral location, such as a fuel station forecourt or motorway service area. Go to the buyer’s home and check the address you’re at matches what’s on the V5C vehicle registration document. 

Don’t view a car after dark or in the rain, as poor body work is harder to spot.

Ask to see all the paperwork, including the V5C – sometimes known as the log book – and anything relating to services, MoT tests and replacement parts. Caring car owners will keep all these, knowing it will help with a sale. If something doesn’t add up, walk away.

Have you heard about the 'crash for cash' scam?

Current scams

‘Virtual vehicle’ fraud is a growing crime. Many buyers are conned every year into sending money to people they have never met for vehicles they have never seen. 

The scam often involves stories of a car currently being based abroad, but imminently returning to the UK. You, as the potential buyer, are directed to a fake company’s website, which promises to handle shipping and payment.

Beware of websites offering cars at seriously knocked-down prices. They feature historic adverts and the cars don’t actually exist for sale. Never hand over money until you’ve seen the vehicle with your own eyes.

Beware of online sales sites such as eBay and Gumtree. There are many legitimate cars on there, being sold by honest individuals, but there are also tricksters.

Cars with outstanding finance

Outstanding finance taken out by the seller is another common situation. It means he or she doesn’t actually own the car, and so has no legal right to sell it. There’s no such thing as ‘innocent purchaser’ protection, so you will lose any money you paid when the finance company eventually reclaims the car.

Similarly, people will sometimes try to sell hire cars. The seller will take as many deposits as possible, then return it to the rental company and vanish with the money.

‘Clocked’ cars are still a problem. It means the mileage has been adjusted down to make the vehicle seem worth more than it actually is. A full service history, with plenty of paperwork and receipts that show a steady increase in mileage, should help you avoid this.

Car ‘cloning’ is another con that’s never gone away. It’s the equivalent of identity theft but on vehicles. In short, a stolen vehicle is disguised with fake number plates and sold on privately at a low price for a quick profit. When the real owner wants it back, the buyer is out of pocket.

Read our tips for buying a used car.

Selling a used car

What should you look out for if you’re selling a car privately?

Firstly, be wary of anyone who says they want to pay the asking price without seeing the car first. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably will be.

Be wary of what are called ’vehicle matching’ scams. When you have a car for sale, you’ll be cold-called by a company which promises to put you in touch with a definite buyer for your vehicle. They don’t do this for free, and funnily enough the ultra-keen customer never materialises.

When you do find a buyer, an online bank transfer is the best way of getting your money, and avoids any issues with counterfeit cheques or cash. Wait for the funds to be cleared, so they’re in your account and unable to be recalled. Ring your bank and ask if you have concerns. If you’re legitimate, and so is the buyer, they will understand your caution.

Think you know the law? Eight new rules that affect motorists.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.