It wasn't too long ago that buying a new hot rod was a local event. You decided what you wanted, how much you could afford, and set out to the local car show, swap meet, or cruise night. If no luck was found there, you rummaged through the local classifieds until you found what you wanted, or you gave up. Your dream car could be just a few hundred miles away and you would never know it. Then came the Internet, and it all changed, for better and for worse.

Today, the world is your oyster and you have only to surf the Web to find your pearl. At least it would work that way in a perfect world, but as you know, this rock is far from that. As the Internet is the ideal tool for locating that numbers-matching whatever of your dreams, it also provides the anonymity that con artists and thieves thrive on. Just like dating services that are filled with super models and millionaires, the guys peddling classic American muscle aren't always what they appear.

Arguably the most popular classic-car-buying Mecca is eBay. The online auction site that has something for everyone generally has at least one of any car you could be looking for, but at a price. That "price" is that it's generally difficult (at best) to check out a tempting ride in the short amount of time an auction takes place--usually seven days. This leads many shoppers to end up buying based on a half dozen low-resolution pictures. Trust us, pictures can hide a thousand sins and we often get letters about the excellent condition car that ended up being a rust bucket or the SS that really wasn't. Or worse. This is where common sense and doing your homework pays off. The old adage that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," should be emblazoned across the eBay pages. I sold my old '69 Camaro locally over a year ago and yet it pops up every few weeks for sale at a tenth of its value. These people often hope to collect a deposit from you and then disappear into the ether. They prey on greed, so you can beat them by not being greedy.

One aspect of eBay that's helpful is "feedback." This is a seller's rating and gives you an indication of the person's track record on other sales. Nonetheless, the crooks are slick and they often steal people's accounts and set up shop as John Smith with 5,364 positive feedbacks. Poor John Smith doesn't even know he's selling a Mustang. With this scenario, a buyer would send in a deposit that he'd never see again. To combat this, you can click on the seller's name and see what types of auctions he's had in the past. If it's all used Xbox games or Barbie dolls and now he's selling musclecars, that's a red flag that his account has been hijacked.

Also be cautious of eBay's "second chance" offer. It is a real service where the seller can offer the car to other bidders if the winning bidder flakes out. The problem is that the e-mail you get can be from a crook and not from eBay. Look at the e-mail address the offer came from and check the address bar that comes up in links within the e-mail. Often times, it's easy to spot if you take the time to look. You can also go back to the auction you bid on and e-mail the seller through eBay and ask him if he really sent out a second chance offer. A real second chance offer is also always copied to your "My eBay" message center.The latest trick we've seen is called "spoofing." Through computer trickery, you can click on an eBay auction and end up on a site that looks just like the real deal, but isn't. At some point on this fake site, they will try to get your password. It looks very legit, but it's all smoke and mirrors. Enter your password and soon your account will be selling a car you've never seen. You can sometimes tell when this spoofing occurs because the real screen will pop up for a second before you're re-directed to the fake site. Another way is to check the address bar on your browser and check the name of the site you're on. Remember, just because it has "ebay" in the address doesn't mean your still on the real eBay. Also, try the back button. Many spoof sites won't let you click back to the real eBay page.

Be wary of an auction only open to "pre-approved" bidders. Sometimes that's just another way to get your password. Overall, eBay is a great site to find a new ride. You just need to be wary and not get caught up in the bidding frenzy.If you don't feel 100 percent confident about buying from an online auction, that doesn't mean you can't use eBay anyway. We've bought items, and even cars, with the help of eBay, without buying through the actual auction itself. Remember, sellers can sell their goods outside of eBay, even during an active auction. If you feel more comfortable contacting the seller on the side and working your own deal without having tons of personal electronic data in the hands of strangers, that's completely acceptable. In this way, you're actually using eBay more as a traditional online classified.

The Overseas Shakedown
Another common scam on many sites is the overseas deposit scam. The "seller" often offers to ship the car direct to you for little or no additional charge. This should be a tip-off right away since the cost to ship a car across the ocean is thousands of dollars. Also, an overseas seller is not subject to U.S. laws. Imagine trying to sue some guy in Nigeria--not gonna happen. This is a shame, because there very well may be some honest people posting ads like this. [OK, maybe not.--ed]

Friends In Far Away Places
There are quite a few great sites for car shopping, but they all suffer from the same inherent problem in that you have to take the person's word for it on the condition of the car. To some extent, you can say that about buying any car, but the Internet provides a convenient, anonymous cloak, which emboldens those who are already criminally inclined. If you find a car out of your area, it's a good idea to have a friend in the area check it out for you. Additionally, most towns have third-party appraisal services that can be hired to give your potential ride the once over.

If the car is expensive, it might even be worth it to fly or drive to check it out in person. A few hundred bucks in airfare is chump change when you're talking about a car costing tens of thousands of dollars. Be suspicious, ask questions, and if anything seems fishy, then run. Don't let your desire for a car override your common sense. Remember that many parts of a car are subjective. What might be a ten on one guy's scale, may be a five on yours.

Internet Photos
Photos on Web sites and message boards are almost always low-resolution, and what looks good on your computer screen at 72 dpi can easily hide bad paint, shoddy body work, and even dents. A legit seller (who could be expected to want the best possible price for his car) should have no problem shooting and e-mailing additional photos; it stands to follow the more expensive the car is, the more reasonable the request for additional photos. If you have questions about typical problem areas such as underbody rust, it's easy enough for the seller to grab an extra shot and send it to you. If the car is good, he'll want that shot to send to other potential buyers, so be wary if you catch resistance from a seller. While we were searching for a project car recently, we looked at a '72 Olds Cutlass that looked great in photos, but there was conveniently no driver-side shot. That's because there was a huge dent in the rear quarter-panel. We wasted half a day driving to Escondido to look at the car, only to find out it was a rip-off. The moral of the story is to ask for additional photos--the worst that could happen is that the seller says "no."

Message Boards
Internet message boards are communities of gearheads with like-minded interests. Almost every one of these boards has a classified section. The bad news is that it's generally unregulated. The good news is that you can ask other members to vouch for the seller, or even go look at a car for you that is out of your area. In some cases, members who are local to the seller have seen the car. Overall, we like the idea of club message board classifieds because long-term members of these communities have a vested interest in the hobby and their relationship with other members. There seems to be a greater degree of accountability with closely knit clubs than with for-hire classifieds. One of the better scenarios we've found is when a well-known member puts his car up for sale; to other members, the car is a known commodity, making the decision to buy a relatively easy one. The key here is to know the members (and the cars) on a club site. If you're a newbie at a particular forum, you may not be able to get as much out of it as a long-time member or moderator, but it's definitely an avenue you'll want to explore.