Most of us have been there, looking for the best deal on a car, whether it's at a dealership or through private sales. You search used car lots, chain dealerships, car shopping websites, and of course, the hit-or-miss site called Craigslist, the classified ad website that allows you to post and respond to ads about anything from jobs, dates, free giveaways, and car sales. Because of the nature of the site, open to just anyone who wants to post something, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll run into people trying to run a scam on those who aren’t aware of such activities. Keeping in mind some key things while shopping for cars on Craigslist or sites like it will protect you from car scams.

A beautiful, sweet BMW 3-Series for $1. I gotta have it!

Both buying and selling cars on Craigslist can save a huge amount of money for both parties involved, but there are times when that could come at a much greater cost than just what’s listed as the price. The scams can work both ways, whether you’re a buyer or a seller, so no one is necessarily safe from them. That isn’t to say they’re not pretty easy to spot. Luckily, it seems like they’ve all gone to some sort of scamming school and have relatively similar scamming techniques.

There are some tell tale signs that you're not being given the full picture. Tens of thousands of these kinds of ads are posted across the nation daily, and Craigslist posts disclaimers and warnings all over the place as a result. If you're a smart shopper, you'll look for key information to be present, and you'll also notice key things that are clear signs that things are not what they seem.

The Signs of a Fraudulent Ad

scam ad

If you come across an ad to sell a car that seems way too good to be true, more than likely, it is. More often than not, someone who is looking to sell their car will have done the proper research in order to find out what is a reasonable price at which to sell their vehicle. If the listing is displaying a relatively new top trim level luxury car with low miles and absolutely no issues, while also being only somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000, this should raise a red flag. Cars that are priced well below their market value usually will have some sort of engine trouble, extremely high mileage, or a huge host of issues that the buyer will eventually (or immediately) have to fix. In that case, it makes sense for the car to be sold cheap, but if it’s in like new condition and it is still being sold for next to nothing, you might want to continue onto the next listing. 

Also look for things like a ridiculously low odometer reading number that can't possibly match the car listed. A 2004 Nissan Maxima with 131 miles that has great gas mileage. Hrmm. You don't have to be a genius to see this. Don't let your eagerness to get a great deal make you the ultimate sucker. 

If by chance you’ve decided to test your luck and inquire about one of these cars within a sketchy ad, be conscientious of how the person on the other end communicates with you. First, if you notice that the ad didn’t have all that much information in it, it would lead you to ask some pretty specific questions, ones that should be easily answered by the person who is selling the vehicle. If that person doesn’t want to talk on the phone at all, that’s also a big, red flag.

Real Communication Matters


If all communication is going through email, they will likely give you all the information you're seeking, along with some you didn’t ask for. If they give you some personal sob story of some kind or mention how they’re in the military and stationed overseas, or anything that would eventually lead to them saying something about not being local to the area in which it was advertised in, there’s something wrong with that picture. If the ad lists the car in Chicago, but the person selling it is in Nebraska, don’t even continue the conversation as they are more than likely trying to scam you.

Another indication that the listing isn’t legit would be if there is no phone number listed. If the seller isn't making themselves available to talk on the phone about details of the car, it’s best to steer clear of them. Beyond this, if you’re being told they can’t meet you for whatever reason, or they’re involving some kind of “pickup agent” from an online escrow service to handle the money transaction, it’s a bad idea to go forward. Under no circumstances should you be wiring money to them through any platform, especially their favorite, Western Union, as it’s not traceable. They’ll even try to bait you into using eBay to buy the car, don’t trust it.

You Can Get Scammed by Buyers, Too

money order

On the flip side, if you’re selling your car, there are ways someone can try to scam you, too. Counterfeit checks, stolen checks, and bounced checks are all things that can cost you your car or money, and in a lot of cases, both. A common scam you may come across will be where the buyer “accidently” pays more by money order or cashier’s check than what was asked for by you, then asks you to refund them the overage. If you send them the money before the money clears in the bank, there’s a good chance they’ve just taken you for a ride, while also taking your ride. The money order will likely be fake, and you will have lost your money forever, as well as the car.

All of this shouldn’t deter you from wanting to buy a car from Craigslist or anything like it, it should just encourage you to make some smarter decisions when dealing with strangers online. Whether you are buying or selling, make sure you get all the information you need from the other party in order to get what you’re looking for. Meet the person in a well-lit, preferably public place to discuss business. If something sounds out of place on either end, it probably isn’t a good idea to pursue it. Just be safe and know that buying and selling your car on Craigslist can be a smooth and reliable process, you just have to watch out for those who would take advantage of you.