Internet Scams - Don't Get Robbed
The Internet is a great place to find your next project car, but the place is thick with thieves. We tell you what to look for.
From the February, 2009 issue of Popular Hot Rodding
By Steven Rupp
Photography by Johnny Hunkins, Steven Rupp
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.
The Camaro being sold at this...
The Camaro being sold at this $8,000 "buy it now" eBay price was sold last year at Barrett Jackson for somewhere around $150,000, and is a good example of "spoofing." So either the owner lost his mind, or it's a scam. To top it off, when you click on the auction, you're taken to a fake eBay screen. Everything you click on triggers an e-mail to the scammer, or a request for your account name and password. That should be a warning right there, but if you read the Web address, you find you're at http://cgi.ebyamotors.com, a big tip-off that something's wrong. After all, eBay would know how to spell its name. It's sort of like buying that ROLOX watch for 20 bucks, only you don't get the cheap watch as a souvenir.
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]
For some reason, my old '69...
For some reason, my old '69 Camaro is a favorite among scammers, most likely because there are quite a few pictures of it floating around. You may think that nobody could fall for this, but I regularly get e-mails from people who see the ad, find my e-mail address, and want to know where to send the money. This time the ad was on Craigslist.com, and you can buy the whole car for what I spent on the engine. What a deal. Not! There are some great deals on Craigslist, but the site is free to advertise on and anyone can post anything with no cost incurred. This makes it attractive to the majority of legit sellers, but it's also a magnet for crooks and con artists.
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.
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."
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.
Real deals are out there....
Real deals are out there. One of our favorite sites is Classic Car Trader Online. Unlike the free sites, this place charges you to post an ad. That eliminates many of the crooks. Also, it seems harder to steal passwords here, so that helps as well. Still, ask questions and do your homework and you just may walk away with a new toy for the garage. This '67 Fairlane seemed like a pretty sweet deal, if only it was closer than 2,400 miles. Once we added in the transport costs, it just wasn't worth it.
Show Me The Title!
We have seen a scenario where someone is selling a car they don't legally own yet. What happens is that they put a car up for sale, collect money for the car, and then go buy it from the real owner. Of course you think the guy you're sending your greenbacks to already holds the title. What's happening is that the seller is acting as a secret broker, which is unethical, and in many states, illegal. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't. Don't be afraid to ask about the title and see if the seller will fax or e-mail you a copy of it to show he owns the car free and clear.
Another scenario we recently ran into is where a hobbyist buys and sells cars as a side business--it's strictly "on the side," and not subject to the same regulation as a storefront dealer. While not technically a scam, it's usually illegal to buy and sell over a specific number of cars in a year's time. Problems can arise for you, the buyer, when this interim seller tries to flip a car that he's bought, but hasn't yet registered as his own. (He's trying to get out of paying registration fees and he doesn't want the state to find out he's running a side business.) You go to buy the car from him and the seller presents a real title, but with the previous owner's information on it. You submit that title to the state DMV to get retitled in your name, only to find out there are back sales taxes, back registration fees, and overdue parking tickets. You sometimes get stuck having to pay thousands in fees and/or fines, and with no recourse.
When checking out a car for the first time, be very careful. One of our favorite practices is to meet a seller or prospective buyer in a public place, like a busy parking lot, shopping center, restaurant, or service station. Meeting at a residence gives thieves the opportunity to rob or physically harm you, and selling (or buying) a car may only be a pretext for robbery. During our search, we would ask sellers if they could meet us somewhere publicly in the middle to cut down on drive time. Some sellers say, "No, come to my place. If you really want the car, you have to come to me."
That, of course, is an invitation to discover all kinds of interesting info about a seller--an opportunity to "turn the tables," so to speak. To protect yourself and to gain a bargaining advantage, you can use a seller's address to pull up public information on their homes at www.zillow.com. In past searches, we've found out what kind of neighborhood the owner lived in, the value of their home, when it was last sold, how much they bought it for, the size of the home, and we even got multiple aerial photos of the home and adjacent properties. For one car's address, we even saw the car that was for sale in the satellite image! And completely outside of providing a small measure of safety, it will allow you to make qualified judgements about the buyer ahead of time to gain a bargaining advantage. The moral of the story: If you're a greedy seller, you may unwittingly be giving your buyer the advantage.
Given the current musclecar craze, many dealers specializing in classic cars have popped up. Some are great, and others may bend the truth. Regardless, they are often safer than buying blind from a private party. The downside is that it's a business, and they have to make money. That means that the deals aren't as smoking hot as they are on the private market. This is the price you pay for a smoother transaction. When going through a dealer, it pays to check out the local Better Business Bureau to see if they have had any complaints filed.
VIN and Body Tag Decoding
If you're buying a collectible model, you're just asking to get ripped off if you don't verify the simple stuff. There are VIN and body tag decoding references all over the Internet. For instance, if you're buying a Chevelle Super Sport and paying the full "SS" price for it, ask the seller to send you a photo of the Fisher Body tag and any supporting documentation like a broadcast sheet, original bill of sale, or protect-o-plate. These can be faked, but it's a lot harder than just slapping reproduction badges on and calling it a day. A legit seller will in many cases have owned the car for a few years, and can pass on the ownership history for you to verify. If there is no supporting documentation and the seller is cloudy on specifics, you'll want to pass on it.We're sure that by the time you read this, a guy in Trinidad has come up with a new way to take your cash. Crooks may not be overly bright, but many are good at what they do. The key is to check things out as best you can and to weigh the risks of any particular deal. Let common sense and the phrase "let the buyer beware" be your guide.
We Found A Project Car For PHR
We have been hot on the trail of a new project car, actually two cars, but this one is mine. This time I decided to try a Ford. I checked all my favorite Web sites each day looking for just the right ride at the right price. I wanted a car that had nice paint and body, since that part is expensive and time consuming.
Then Tas Scourtis, an acquaintance at Pro-Touring.com, sent me a link to a sweet '70 Fairlane 500 on eBay. Even though I was looking for a '66 or '67 Fairlane, this ride was just too clean to pass up. The only problem, there were only a couple of days left on the auction, so there wasn't time to check it out in person (it was located about 1,000 miles away).
Nevertheless, the seller, Dave Hannan, had good verifiable feedback selling classic cars, and he gave an honest-sounding description of the Fairlane. It also helped that he posted over 20 high-quality pictures of all areas of the car. I made a call to the seller to ask some questions, then I pulled the trigger and placed a bid. One thing to keep in mind with eBay is that much of the action can take place in the last minute of the auction. This was no exception. The Fairlane sat at $7,500 for days, but in the last few minutes, it started to creep up. Some dude with zero feedback ended up costing me an extra $400 in the last 30 seconds of the auction, but that's eBay for you. My winning bid was $8,100, and that's a deal for such a clean ride. Look for more details on our new project in an upcoming issue of PHR.--Steven Rupp
Hold The Presses--Here's The Other Project
If Steven is more of a risk taker by using eBay's online auction to buy his Fairlane sight-unseen, then I'm the cautious one, using classifieds and looking first-hand. OK, so I did use the Internet to find my '68 Chevelle, but I still used classifieds, like the ones I found at www.collectorcartraderonline.com. Like Steven, I'd been pounding the Internet for months, only I was looking at GM A-bodies. Hint: if you want a good deal, it pays to open up your mind to similar cars. Example, I wanted a '69 Chevelle, but would've settled for the right '65 Lemans or '72 Olds, just to name two other A-bodies. I ended up getting pretty close with a '68 Chevelle SS 396 clone.
I looked at hundreds of cars online, and once I felt confident about what was out there in my price range, I gradually transitioned from online trolling, to looking at the more appealing offerings in person. There were some stinkers out there, so when I laid eyes on Adam Polcyn's mint '68 Chevelle for $15,900, my radar locked on like a Sidewinder missile on a MIG-17. When Steven and I rolled up on it the first time, we knew it wasn't like the others we'd seen that day. For his part, Adam, the car's owner, was extremely forthright about every detail on the car, pointing out known problems and recent improvements.
I quickly realized this was a person I could trust to tell me the truth. After a short drive around the block, I offered Adam $12,000, figuring we'd end up somewhere in the middle. He thought about it for a few seconds, then to my surprise, said "yes." No endless days of playing silly auction games. Now I've got a Tripoli Turquoise metallic '68 Chevelle SS 396 clone with mile-deep paint and a 454 big-block. We'll roll out our plans for it soon, so if you want a say in it (you, too, Adam!), stroll over to the Team Chevelle Web site (www.chevelles.com) and throw in your two cents.--Johnny Hunkins
Getting Your New Ride Home
It's a big country, and chances are good that the ride you buy online is not local. This means you need to get it home from wherever it currently is. If you buy from a dealer, they generally have some recommendations in regards to transport. If you're buying from a private party, then you're on your own. Unless the car is local, your main choices are to drive to the car, and bring it home on a trailer, fly to where the car is, and drive it home, or hire a professional transport company to bring the car to you.
If you hire a transport company, you will need to decide if you want an enclosed or open trailer. Enclosed is the most expensive, but it also provides the most protection for your new ride. If it's clean when it leaves, it'll arrive to you in the same condition. An open transport can cost 50 percent of what an enclosed one would run, but your car is open to the elements during its trip. Open trailers typically chain down the vehicles, while an enclosed trailer uses soft straps. This is especially important on cars that are already nice. Both types of carriers will also have an additional charge if the vehicle doesn't run and has to be pushed or pulled onto the trailer.
Once you decide on open or closed, you will need to find the right company. You want someone who's been doing this for a while, and who is fully insured and bonded. Have the company prove its insurance and ask for referrals from other customers. Most of the larger companies have Web sites where you can check out their rigs and get an idea of how they do business. According to Dave Wilson, president of Intercity Lines, you should be wary of brokers. Dave told us, "There are so many brokers in this business. If something bad happens you are left stuck in the middle. If they ask for a deposit, then you're dealing with a broker and there's no telling who they will hire to transport your property." If your car is damaged in transit, a broker has almost no liability and you're left to deal with the carrier he hired. It can become a mess. According to Dave, you want to deal direct with a company that owns its trucks. He also says that unless you are transporting between countries, insurance is more important than being bonded. Dave recommends that the carrier have at least a million dollars in coverage for a larger trailer. This way you will be covered if the unthinkable happens. Intercity has been doing this for 25 years and all its trucks are GPS tracked, so you know right where your shipment is. Several companies offer this service, and it's nice to always know where your new pride and joy is on its journey.
There are several other things to look at when choosing a transport company. Does the company return your calls quickly? Do you get a human voice when you call? Has it been in business a long time? If so, then chances are the company will give you good service.
We had Intercity Lines transport our new Fairlane from Portland, Oregon, to Placentia, California. It arrived clean as a whistle in an enclosed truck. During transport, the car was protected by a car cover even though it was inside a trailer. This is the extra attention you get with a high-end transport company.--Steven Rupp