The showroom-clean 2004 Toyota Avalon offered on Hartford’s craiglist site may seem like a steal at $2,135. But that stealing, sadly, will come at the expense of any overly eager car buyer willing to fork over the money.
The craigslist ad is a fake — one of scores of bogus car ads that continue to pop up every day on the popular classified-ad site. Last October, I wrote about the craigslist used-car scam, describing the clever methodology crime rings in Romania have perfected to steal nearly $50 million from more than 15,000 victims.
Six months later, the scammers show no sign of letting up, as illustrated by a spin through Hartford’s craigslist offerings. The 2005 Acura TL for $2,617? Fake. The 2007 Lexus IS 250 with air-conditioned seats for $2,350? Fake. The 2006 Nissan Altima “Janice Johnson” is willing to let go for the same $2,350? Fake, fake, fake.
The Altima is actually a recycle job — one of the vehicles we featured in the Courant’s October story. Back then, the exact same vehicle was offered by “Brenda Cullen,” who claimed to be in Omaha, Neb., and willing to part with the car for $2,400. (The real car had an $11,800 sticker at a dealership outside Chicago.)
Overseas crooks have gotten rich by combining too-good-to-be-true deals with untraceable Western Union payments. To lure would-be buyers, they spin tales of new jobs or medical problems or military deployments to explain the low prices. And they have gotten a big assist by convincing victims that the sales are processed through independent escrow agents affiliated with eBay’s well-regarded Vehicle Purchase Protection program. But it’s all a tech-savvy lie, and the moment a mark hands over cash to a Western Union agent, that it almost certainly the last he or she will see of the money.
The scam is especially lucrative because the same car can be “sold” to multiple victims. Better hurry if you want to be first to put money down on that 2004 Avalon (“I am selling it because I now have a company car dont need it.”) The exact same car is being peddled on more than 20 different craigslist sites, from Charlotte, N.C., to Seattle, Wash. – while the real vehicle was actually for sale at a dealership in Florida for $11,500.
How did that car get picked? Simple: The vehicle is in pristine condition and the legitimate ad featured plenty of cream-puff photographs the criminals could display to car shoppers to drum up business.
The FBI takes the global scam seriously enough that it has actual boots on the ground in Romania trying to stop the flow of money, and several scammers have been caught and put behind bars. But it’s an uphill battle.
What can you do as a consumer? Craigslist, Western Union and eBay all have the same advice: Only deal locally, don’t buy a car you haven’t personally inspected, and never send money through Western Union to someone you don’t personally know. On craigslist, any seller who responds with a tale that the vehicle is out of state but will shipped for free is almost certainly a crook. And be aware that eBay never permits the use of its Vehicle Purchase Protection program for cars bought on craigslist.
Wanna be a scambuster? Bogus ads can be reported to craigslist, which will ultimately pull them off the site. Complaints can also be filed with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. And you can post details of scam ads – including email addresses used and the text of correspondence from sellers – to any of a number of sites that have sprung up to amass information on Internet scams (in the hopes that future victims will search the Web and discover the scam in time). A site called fightthescams.com is a popular choice.