The top car scam on Craigslist and OfferUp

Online buying and selling sites like Craigslist and OfferUp make it easy for anyone to list just about anything, so it makes sense that they’re two of the most popular places for people to sell cars. And there are plenty of honest, trustworthy people doing just that. But unfortunately, because there’s no protection for buyers (or sellers), they’re also prime hunting grounds for scammers.

And since cars are big-ticket items, these fraudsters stand to make a significant amount of money for their chicanery. So they’re pretty industrious, and creative, and constantly coming up with new schemes.

One of the current scams—it’s not brand new, but it’s become the biggest one in the last few years—is called VIN cloning. Here’s how it works: a car thief has a stolen car to sell. He or she then cruises parking lots or city streets to find the same year/model in a similar color, and snaps a picture of that car’s VIN number (that’s the vehicle identification number, and each car has a unique one, sort of like a human fingerprint.) It’s easy to get the VIN, because it’s conveniently displayed in a stamped plate on the dash, at the bottom of the driver-side windshield; you don’t even have to get inside the car to see it. Or, even easier, they can find a listing for a car that’s been listed for sale online at any point, and get the VIN from that listing (many of which are still available via a simple web search long after the car’s been sold.)

A typical VIN number plate

Using that, they can make a duplicate of the VIN plate and attach it to the stolen car, and alter or make a counterfeit title to match. And just like, that the stolen car’s legit—if anyone runs the VIN, it comes back to a car just like it that isn’t stolen. So an unsuspecting buyer can actually buy the car, go to the DMV to do the title transfer and register it in their name, and drive home. 

But then one day, the DMV or law enforcement somehow notices something amiss, through any number of possible scenarios. They go to the buyer’s home and impound the car, and the buyer is out both the car and the money they paid for it. (And probably has to do a lot of explaining to prove that they didn’t steal the car or know it was stolen when they bought it.)

There have even been cases where a tracking device was discovered on the car, so that the scammer could steal it and resell it again. (Guess that saves them the hassle of having to take pictures and write a description all over again!)

How can you avoid it?

Here’s how to avoid getting scammed on OfferUp, Craigslist, or anywhere else a private seller could be trying to sell a VIN-cloned car:

1. Check the CARFAX

image credit: CARFAX

CARFAX is a great first step, and is important to use any time you’re buying a used car. It can show you suspicious things, like whether the car is (or has recently been) registered in multiple states, or whether it shows up as registered in a different state from where it’s being sold. It can be very helpful to look up via the number of the license plate that’s on the car, too—CARFAX will tell you whether it matches up with the VIN. If the car’s been VIN-cloned, it almost certainly won’t match, as thieves will generally put stolen plates on the car, but won’t actually have cloned license plates in addition to the VIN plate.

2. Get an inspection

image credit: BMW USA

Probably the most certain way to confirm you’re buying a car that hasn’t been VIN cloned is to have a mechanical inspection done. Because carmakers put the VIN on stickers (and sometimes even stamped) in multiple locations/parts throughout the car. They’re different sizes/appearances, and it’s just not practical for scammers to find and then recreate all of them. But an inspection company will be able to tell you if they find a VIN anywhere on the car that doesn’t match, or if the VIN stickers don’t look right.

A car buying and selling service like TRED offers both of the above assurances, and also vets buyers and sellers to confirm they are who they say they are—and that each seller is the legal owner of the car they’re listing.

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