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How to avoid the scams when buying a second-hand car

Carlton Boyce / 13 November 2015 ( 07 November 2019 )

Don't get caught out by criminals when buying a second hand car. Follow our tips to avoid the used car scams.

Hand turning a key in a car door to represent buying and selling cars
An online car check will give you an almost-certain guarantee that your dream car has never been stolen, written off, or has outstanding finance recorded against it

Buying a secondhand car has always been stressful and unscrupulous sellers are nothing new, but the increasing complexity of modern vehicles has opened up opportunities for the exploitation of the unwary that Arthur Daley could only have dreamed of. 

Long gone are the days when the car’s odometer had to be wound back with a judiciously applied drill, as the modern crook can access the car’s electronic brain and reset the mileage in seconds.  

However, what can be used for ill can also be used for good: here’s our guide to help you avoid falling victim to a 21st century scam!

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Are they a private seller?

When you phone to ask about the car, just tell the seller you are calling about “the car you’ve got for sale”. 

If they are a dealer trying to dodge their legal obligations by posing as a private seller, they'll have to ask which car you are calling about.

Also, try Googling the telephone number. I’ve done that a few times, and occasionally come across some interesting results!

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Is it too cheap?

If a car looks too cheap, it’s almost certainly a scam. Web sites like Autotrader, Pistonheads, and Honest John will let you see what similar cars are selling for; if the car you like is much cheaper than the average, it is either in poor condition, stolen, or doesn’t exist.

Is the mileage accurate?

While a car’s mileage can be altered with a few keystrokes, that same mileage can be verified just as easily with a few more.

All you need to do is log onto the DVLA’s online MOT history check. This will show you the car’s MOT history and the mileage recorded at each test. I always do this before I go to see a car I’m interested in and have avoided a couple of wasted journeys as a result.

When you are actually looking at the car, ask to see its service history booklet (it does have one, doesn’t it?) to make sure the mileage recorded in it tallies with what you’re seeing on the dashboard.

In either case, if the mileage varies, for any reason, you should be looking for some cast-iron reassurances before writing out a cheque.

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Does it have the right identity?

A car’s identity has nothing to do with its registration number, which is something that could change several times during its life and is ridiculously easy to alter: fitting a set of false number plates to a stolen car for example, is an easy way to snare the unwary.

No, what you are looking for is the car’s VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number. This is a unique seventeen-digit number that individually identifies your car and distinguishes it from every other car in the world. As a result, it’s an important number to check whenever you are buying a secondhand car.

It can be found on the top of the dashboard and can be seen through the windscreen. It is also stamped into the car’s body, often on the sill and under the bonnet. You’ll need to check they all match and are the same as the one recorded on the car’s V5 registration document. 

If they all match you shouldn’t have a problem, but to be completely safe, you’ll need to run an online car check.

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Number plates

While a number plate isn’t an accurate way to identify a car, it can be a useful pointer to spotting a cloned one. 

As a police officer in London I paid close attention to a car’s number plates: if the number plates didn’t have the supplying dealer’s name at the bottom of them I would always pull the driver over to find out why. Often there was a legitimate reason why the owner had fitted a new number plate, but sometimes there wasn’t and I caught a few car thieves this way.

Also, take a look at the heads of the screws holding the number plate onto the car (assuming it hasn’t been stuck on). Are they scratched or chewed up? If so, why have they been removed? Criminals are cheapskates, and few will bother to buy new screws when they’re fitting cloned number plates.

Find out how you can avoid the number plate scam

Online car checks

An online car check will give you an almost-certain guarantee that your dream car has never been stolen, written off, or has outstanding finance recorded against it.

There are several ways to do this – and Google is your friend – but a typical check from someone like HPI will cost about £10 and provide a financial guarantee that the information is accurate.

Is it theirs to sell?

A common scam is to advertise a newish car at a price that is a little below the usual market value, telling potential buyers that it must be sold quickly because the seller is moving house or starting a new job. 

The car is perfect – largely because it is a new car that the seller has hired – and a deposit is handed over.  This scam can be run a dozen times a day from a rented house, netting the thief thousands of pounds that the buyers will never be able to recover.

The way to avoid this one is to ask to see the car’s V5 registration document, service history book, and other invoices with its registration number on it. If the seller can’t produce them, walk away.

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Is the seller who they say they are?

You’ll also want to check that the V5 registration document is in the seller’s name and address. Again, it isn’t unknown for criminals to sell a stolen car with forged paperwork from the driveway of an unoccupied house, pretending it’s where they live. An easy way to check that it is their home is to ask to use their toilet…

It goes without saying that you must never, ever agree to a seller’s offer to meet you halfway at a motorway service station. They might be trying to be helpful, but are you prepared to gamble several thousand pounds on it?

Do you know about the changes to the V5 document?

Paying for the car

Never be tempted to transfer the money into an escrow account, where a third-party holds the money as a deposit to reserve the car for you. Almost all are scams.

Bank transfers are an easy way to send large sums of money quickly; if you transfer it directly into their bank account, it will often appear within the hour enabling you to take the car away the same day.

For complete reassurance, consider paying with a credit card if you are buying from a dealer. This makes the card issuer equally liable for the transaction (for purchases between £200 and £30,000) and if the seller balks at the extra cost, offer to pay just a couple of hundred pounds on your credit card; this still gives you cover for the full cost of the car under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

As with all scams, criminals rely on a few basic moves that are easily spotted and avoided using the techniques we’ve talked about in this article. By using them you’ll be savvier than 95% of car buyers, scaring dodgy car sellers off in the process! 

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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.