If there’s one subject that really grinds your gears, it’s complaints about cars (and other vehicles).

I’m constantly hearing from readers who are unhappy with the actions of unscrupulous garages, big brands being difficult or second-hand sales disasters. But lately, many people have been asking me about fraud.

Fraud is the biggest growth industry in the UK and has been for some years. This is a sad reflection on society, frankly. The brazen and shameless behaviour of con artists, exploiting people at the height of the cost-of-living crisis is particularly despicable. Not to mention the lamentable lack of resources available to hunt down scammers and prosecute them. But I’ll save that rant for another column.

Knowing how to identify dodgy deals – and what to do if you think you’ve been scammed – can provide you with some reassurance if you’re about to go shopping for a vehicle. The simplest solution is to do a bit of research before committing to buy. Have a look at the market value for the vehicle after factoring in age, mileage and condition and if the price you’re seeing is lower than 75%, I’d question what the catch is.

Needless to say, be wary of ‘quick sales’, cash payments and high pressure tactics.

Here’s my guide on the common scams to watch out for.

Some common car sales scams

First things first, there’s a big difference between outright fraud and simply being sold something that’s a bit duff. Needless to say, if you buy a vehicle sight unseen – online, for example – then that’s when there’s much greater potential for things tend to go wrong.  Here are some examples:

Discounts for paying direct

This particular scam doesn’t just apply to cars. I’ve seen it used to trick people who are booking holiday apartments, buying a vast array of goods or even paying for services like builders and decorators.

Many people buy vehicles through websites where you have to go through the website itself to complete the purchase.  You may have decided to buy a car advertised this way sight unseen (never do this) but even if you meet the seller and have a test drive, you’re still at risk of being scammed.

The seller/fraudster will contact you at the last minute and offer a discount if you pay via bank transfer, directly in to their account. However, as soon as you do this, it’s highly unlikely that you can claim the cash back if the vehicle fails to materialise. Because you’ve gone ‘off site’ to pay, you won’t be covered by the website’s buyer/seller dispute policy. And because you’ve paid by bank transfer, rather that credit or debit card, you can’t ask the card provider to ‘charge back’ your cash.

Fake advertisements

It goes without saying that many magazines, websites and trade publications have fraudsters lurking in the margins, planning on separating you from your cash. Even legitimate looking websites for second-hand vehicles can be easily faked for minimal sums. Photos lifted from the web can be easily combined with fake addresses for the location/collection of the vehicle, all designed to lure people in to a false sense of security.

As with any car purchase, test drive before you buy, don’t send a deposit, don’t pay by any other method than credit or debit card (credit card gives you more protection), check to see if the address is legitimate – and knock on the door to speak to the owner as fraudsters often use stranger’s addresses. Above all else, be sceptical.

Mileage mishaps

Of course, you still need to be wary when buying vehicles in person. ‘Clocking’ is the practice of changing the odometer on a car so the mileage looks lower than it really is, which increases value. Many manufactures claim this can’t be done these days – but all the experts I’ve spoken to confirmed that while it’s got trickier, it is possible to crack both traditional and digital displays (I’m not telling you how this works, for obvious reasons!)

To avoid a clocked car, you need to turn detective. Most estimates put the average mileage covered by a car in the UK at between 7,000 and 10,000 miles a year. So a simple bit of addition should give you an idea of what you might expect to see on the clock. However, if the car has had ‘one careful driver’ and is significantly under that, then you can check what was recorded at the car’s last MOT.

Check for wear and tear too, particularly around the pedals, seats, switches and other regularly used parts of the car, inside and out. An incongruous replacement that looks out of place – a new steering wheel on a car less than 10 years old, for example – might also indicate tinkering.

You can also check your vehicle’s fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and tax banks (for both new and old cars) here.

‘Frankencars’ and clone jobs

This is every driver’s worst nightmare. Cloned cars (stolen, then license plates swapped) and ‘frankencars’ (different vehicles stuck together – sometimes called ‘cut and shut jobs’) are the product of illegal activity. So if you’re caught driving one, even if you innocently purchased it, you lose the car and the money.

The best way to avoid this situation is to pay for an HPI (Hire Purchase Investigation) along with a V5C (logbook) check. There are fees for an HPI check (watch out for suspiciously cheap or ‘free’ options). You might find you can get a good deal through your existing roadside assistance insurer.

The dealer should have the V5C vehicle registration certificate. However, I’ve heard reports of some documents being faked. The Gov.uk website advises:

Make sure it has a ‘DVL’ watermark, and the serial number is not between BG8229501 to BG9999030, or BI2305501 to BI2800000. If it is, the V5C might be stolen – call the police as soon as it’s safe to. Make sure the details in the log book match the details you’ve been given. Check the vehicle identification number and engine number. Make sure these match the details on the log book.

Buyer beware

Of course, sellers need to be just as cautious when it comes to fraudsters. The same fake address and direct bank transfer rules apply – and yes, some people still drive off on test drives, never to return.

One particularly inventive (and simple) scam involves purchases in person. The seller will use their phone to prove that they have transferred the money and will show you the payment confirmation on their screen. But wait! Don’t let them leave until you have checked your own bank account. This scam works by using a faked screenshot, rather than proof of an actual bank transfer.  To avoid these problems, I’d suggest using an e-payment service like PayPal which has a buyer/seller dispute process if a problem arises. Plus you can go to the Financial Ombudsman with PayPal disputes, as you can with credit and debit card problems.

Again, watch out if the buyer asks to use the ‘friends and family’ option as it’s cheaper. This is not covered by PayPal’s dispute resolution scheme as it’s considered a direct transfer.

What if I’ve got a problem with a faulty car?

When it comes to legitimate purchases, people often tell me they think they’ve been defrauded. Actually, most complaints turn out to be about faults or misrepresentation. Beware of banding the word ‘fraud’ about if you are in a dispute with the seller of the vehicle. Even if you are right, it’s likely that the dealer’s attitude to your complaint will harden, for obvious reasons.

Your rights depend on the status of the person or business you bought the vehicle from.

The trickiest purchase option is when you buy privately, from an individual (not a business).  Individual sellers are not legally obliged to tell you about the full condition of the car (as businesses are). However, they must not misrepresent the car when advertising it and must answer your questions honestly, so have a list ready. If a problem emerges, then you’ll be looking at the small claims court if the seller won’t give you a refund.

I you purchased a new or second-hand car, then you have more rights. I often mention the Consumer Rights Act in my Times Money Mentor columns. Though some retailers often ‘overlook’ the law’.

The Consumer Rights Act states that the car must be:

  • Of a satisfactory quality
  • Fit for purpose
  • As described

The Act states that you can return cars within these timeframes, though conditions apply.

  • 30 days. You are entitled to a full refund if the vehicle you have purchased is damaged, faulty, or not as advertised.
  • Six months. If you go over the 30 days, you have six months from the date of purchase to return the vehicle for the same reasons. You must give the retailer one crack at repairing or replacing the item, then it’s a refund, though this may be partial to reflect the use of the vehicle. The Motor Ombudsman clarifies what this ‘fair use’ deduction might mean here.
  • Even over the six months, the vehicle must last ‘a reasonable amount of time’ so you could still ask for a partial refund or a repair, However, the onus switches to you to prove that you haven’t caused the damage.

The same rules apply when you buy a second-hand car. However, as with all second-hand goods, if the fault or damage has been brought to your attention at the point of purchase, you can’t complain about it later. You’ll also have been expected to have checked out the car before driving off, so you might want to photograph the vehicle while going through this process and make notes that you show to the seller too. Finally, like all things in life, natural wear and tear will occur. Some things will simply need replacing over time. If the fault is as a result of wear and tear, then your complaint won’t succeed.

Citizens Advice have a great little tool to help you work out how best to deal with a problem with a second hand car:

If all else fails, you may be able to take a complaint to the Motor Ombudsman, who also have some great resources on their website covering the codes of practice for the motor industry. However, it’s not currently compulsory for all vehicle sellers and dealerships to be under the remit of the Ombudsman. But you can check on their website before making a purchase, to see if the seller is covered.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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