Used car sales fraud: Drivers tell of their heartache as they are ripped off by thousands of pounds

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Tom Mallen was confident he’d never be the victim of a scam, but his self-assurance was shattered when a slick-looking used cars website enabled fraudsters to drive off with £6,500 of his hard-earned money.

He was one of a steady number of victims who complained to Streetwise they’d splashed the cash for cars that never arrived or were potentially unfit to drive.

The 63-year-old Baffins electrician had set his heart on a low mileage Fiesta, but traipsing around second-hand forecourts following debilitating hospital treatment for the Covid virus wasn’t an attractive proposition.

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Two Streetwise readers were conned out of thousands by call sale conmen Picture: Adobe StockTwo Streetwise readers were conned out of thousands by call sale conmen Picture: Adobe Stock
Two Streetwise readers were conned out of thousands by call sale conmen Picture: Adobe Stock

Tom had been exploring Facebook Marketplace for used cars and clicked onto an impressive used car dealership site with more than 1,000 cars on their books.

It featured detailed descriptions, attractive photos, rave reviews, and a live chat facility where motorists could talk directly to sales representatives.

What immediately caught his eye was a 2016 white Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost Zetec with less than 50,000 miles on the clock.

Tom said: ‘When I asked to view the car I was told it wasn’t possible because it was an online business and couldn’t deal directly with the public. Everyone was working from home because of the pandemic.

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‘I thought I had been so careful and checked everything was okay. I got onto HPI to confirm the mileage, check if it had been stolen, or it was subject to any outstanding finance agreement, but it all came back clear.

‘When I insisted I wasn’t at all happy with paying upfront without first seeing the car I was assured my concerns were groundless and not to hesitate to walk away from the deal if I felt uncomfortable about it. If the car hadn’t arrived within two days, I’d be refunded in full.

‘In a way they made me feel silly for raising the query with them when it was obvious that so many businesses had turned to trading solely online due to the pandemic restrictions. It was so very plausible.’

After Tom paid the crooks he received an emailed invoice together with the delivery details. He noticed the website had been updated listing the car as sold.

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On the day the car was due to arrive, he emailed the scammers to check the time of delivery. When he didn’t get an answer he phoned, only to be told there would be a delay of 48 hours because their driver had reported in sick.

The following day he never heard back, and when he called a number unobtainable tone came up. Fearing the worst he contacted his bank, only to find the fraudsters had slipped away in overdrive with his cash.

An enraged Tom admitted with the benefit of hindsight how easily he’d been taken in.

He’d got carried away and let his guard down. His pre-purchase research was half-hearted. He should have spent more time enquiring whether the phantom firm existed.

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He added: ‘I’m still feeling more than a little bit stupid about the low-life fraudsters who got away with playing on my credulity. By going public I just hope other people can benefit from my experience.’

Another social media car fraud victim, Dawn Atherton, 47, of Fareham, was left money in her father’s will to buy a car to replace her clapped-out Vauxhall Antara which had just failed its MoT.

But an online fraudster sold her an insurance category C write-off. The car had undergone some dubious repair work before she bought it, but the cost of repairs to put it back on the road significantly outweighed the real value of the car.

She said: ‘I was impressed when I spotted an ad online for a 2015 Vauxhall Insignia 2-litre limited edition with less than 50,000 miles on the clock, competitively priced at £8,200.

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‘It appeared to be in tip-top condition and well maintained, but it wasn’t long after I bought it I discovered why the private seller fraudster had hurried me into making a decision, completely overlooking some of the many warning signs.

‘Looking back, I’d taken a stupid gamble when he brought it round for me to view by not insisting he provided the car’s history documentation. I was just given a scrawled handwritten receipt with what turned out to be false contact details.

‘A month down the line the car’s steering became erratic. My regular car mechanic was horrified to discover it was unsafe to drive and luckily I’d avoided a potential serious accident and the insurance would be void.

‘The garage ran a background check for me which immediately came back to confirm it was an insurance write-off and unfit to be driven on public roads.’

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Dawn had agreed to pay for the car by bank transfer. Lloyds Bank and trading standards investigators discovered money had been sent to an identity theft customer account and was unrecoverable.

She was anxious to ensure the way she’d been scammed was brought to the attention of readers, and in future would buy used cars from reputable dealers and avoid private individuals like the plague.

What worried her most was when trading standards told her that buying from private sellers was high risk. Unlike motor traders and dealerships, private buyers have no legal comeback against defects. It could also be a hire car, still subject to an outstanding finance agreement, or even stolen.

To make matters worse, bona fide used car traders must disclose whether a vehicle has been a write-off, whereas private sellers are not accountable in law to buyers for selling potentially dangerous unsafe vehicles without.

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A Trading Standards Institute spokesperson said: ‘Not disclosing a vehicle’s full history is a common scam that potential buyers repeatedly fall victim to.

‘Online buyers must be vigilant to avoid being scammed. They should make extensive history checks online, insist on seeing a vehicle in person before parting with any money, and if they have the slightest doubt, remember they are simply a mouse click away from declining to make a purchase.’

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