If you’ve tried to buy a vehicle in the past two years, you know that the process can get increasingly longer. Consumers had to contend with low inventories, high prices and months-long waiting lists.
To alleviate some of these frustrations, many consumers are turning to buying cars online. But instead of a smoother shopping process, some have fallen for a rapidly growing online scam: car dealer website impersonation.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the Iowa Department of Transportation have reported an increase in online scams that pose as local car dealerships, costing out-of-state consumers dozens of dollars. thousands of dollars and tarnishing dealers’ reputations.
Buying a vehicle online may seem like a way to avoid the hassles and frustrations of today’s market, but buyers could be falling into a trap set by criminals.
How the scam works
The scam typically involves small dealerships with little or no web presence, or dealerships that have recently closed.
Typically, the suspect registers a domain name that closely resembles the name of the legitimate reseller. The criminals imitate the name and branding of the legitimate dealer and make slight changes to the legitimate phone numbers and email addresses.
Equipped with a new website, the scammers begin to advertise vehicles – usually high-end models or classic cars – for sale. In addition to launching the website, the suspects also create advertisements on sites such as Facebook, YouTube or Autotrader. When a consumer shows interest in purchasing the vehicle, they are asked to wire a large sum of money for a vehicle that does not actually exist.
Although some of these bogus websites offer money back guarantees or a shipping date, these, like the vehicle, never materialize.
A fictional Porsche
In a case reported to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in March, a Texas man found an advertisement on Autotrader for a 2008 Porsche 911 Turbo sold by Delta Motors Auto Sales in Iowa.
Delta Motors Auto Sales was a knock-off of Delta Motors LLC, an authorized and legitimate car dealership in Waterloo.
The man called the number listed on the ad and later agreed to purchase the vehicle for $38,000 plus a $500 delivery charge. After exchanging several emails, the man sent money to the dealer’s bank account. The dealer then sent the man a copy of a fraudulent sales receipt and a copy of a fraudulent vehicle title.
“I was promised my car in seven days and to cut a long story short, my car was not delivered to me as promised,” the man wrote in a complaint to the Iowa attorney general’s office. “I tried several times to reach the director to no avail.”
The Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Investigation and Identity Protection issued a warning in late March that someone was impersonating Delta Motors LLC.
Likewise, after being informed of the fraudulent website, Delta Motors LLC issued several warnings on its real Facebook page. The dealership reminded customers it does not sell vehicles online and urged buyers not to send money to anyone claiming to be from the business.
Before purchasing a vehicle, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office recommends that consumers always view a vehicle in person.
However, this is not always possible. If you’re buying a vehicle online, follow these tips to make sure you’re buying from a real car dealership:
g View the Iowa Department of Transportation’s list of registered auto dealers here: https://iowadot.gov/mvd/buyingselling/dealers.pdf. This table is updated monthly and will show you the dealer’s legal name, dealer number and address. Check this information against the information provided to you by the dealer.
g Speak with the dealer by phone. Do an independent search for their phone number, make sure it matches the contact details in the vehicle listing. Then talk to them on the phone about the car you want to buy.
g If the alleged dealership asks you to wire money to a bank, contact the bank to confirm that the car dealership is a customer there. Consider paying by credit card or secure payment methods such as a personal check, rather than a wire transfer, so you can dispute the payment later.
g You can check with the DOT at 515-237-3050 or the Iowa Attorney General’s Office at 515-281-5926 or 888-777-4590 to see if there are any complaints against the dealer from whom you buy.
g Ask for identifying information such as vehicle identification number (VIN), license plate, or current registered owner ID. Call the county treasurer where the vehicle is titled to confirm current registration information, including title number and VIN.
g Use a resource such as CARFAX, AutoCheck, or National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) to obtain a vehicle history report.
g Be careful when providing personal information on the Internet.
g Search the reseller on the Better Business Bureau website at www.bbb.org to ensure their profile has not been flagged with concerns and read customer feedback. Search the business on a web browser to see if others have had issues with purchases.
g Be sure to check the street address using an online mapping program and click on the street view to see what is at that address.
g Ensure the legitimacy of the business by thoroughly researching the company’s contact details and all shipping and payment policies before making any transactions.
Car dealerships can take several steps to ensure their business is not a victim of online identity theft. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the DOT recommend that dealerships:
g Conduct regular internet searches of their own dealerships to ensure they have not been victims of internet fraud.
g Use tools like Google Alerts to let you know about new stories about your dealership.
g Make sure your official website is entered with DOT. This may be subject to DOT Vehicle Central programs at any time or when applying for or renewing a dealer license.
Automobile dealers who suspect their business is a victim of online identity theft should immediately notify the Iowa Department of Transportation – Office of Investigation and Identity Protection at 515-237-3050 or email@example.com.
File a complaint
If you suspect a scammer is impersonating a car dealership, you should report the suspected fraud to the Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office by calling 515-281-5926 or 888- 777-4590 or through the online complaint form at www.iowaattorneygeneral. govt.
A report should also be made with the DOT’s Office of Investigation and Identity Protection at 515-237-3050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Miller is the Attorney General of Iowa. He can be reached at email@example.com.