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Used Car Scams

Buying a used car can be stressful enough, without having to worry about whether or not the vendor is trying to rip you off. Unfortunately there’s a high chance of this, as one in every three HPI checks flags up some sort of problem.

It could be that the car is subject to outstanding finance, it may have been clocked or it could have been involved in an insurance claim at some point. Alternatively it could be stolen, or there’s an array of other ways you could get caught out – so here’s how to protect yourself.

Fake escrow accounts

If a vendor tries to steer you towards using a specific escrow account, be wary. Such accounts allows you to deposit cash with a third party until a transaction has been completed, so both sides have some level of security. You’ll deposit your money in the account and the car vendor will then disappear – with your money. The escrow service is fake, even though it looks professional. The key is to see if the escrow service is registered with Companies House and check with Trading Standards too.

Deposit fraud

Some vendors put buyers under pressure to leave a deposit, to secure a car. It can be a legitimate and fair request, but if they put you under pressure, claiming they’ve got someone else desperate to buy their car, weigh up the situation. If you think you can trust the vendor, a small deposit will show that you’re serious, but make sure you get a receipt. You could still be ripped off of course, but do your best to limit your potential losses.

The hire car scam

This one is so simple that it’s laughable – but people still fall for it, and it’s far from funny. It hinges on hiring a car then selling it, which is obviously illegal but people do it anyway. The key is to make all of the usual basic checks, including analysing the car’s Registration Document (V5C). If that’s not to hand, walk away.


This is potentially one of the simplest scams going, especially if the car being sold has a digital odometer. An odometer displays how many miles a car has done; if it’s digital it’s just a question of hooking up a laptop with the right software, pressing a few buttons and setting the mileage to whatever you want it to be.

The more traditional analogue odometers have to be removed and manually reset, but that’s easily done – although the retaining screws for the dash have to come out and it’s usually obvious if this has been done. Always go through the car’s service history and check the mileage for each year – see that it goes up steadily and that it doesn’t suddenly drop.

Finally, make sure that when you collect the car it shows the same mileage as when you first viewed it. It’s not unknown for the mileage to be reduced for a viewing, then to go back up once the car is being collected.


Ringed cars are stolen then given a new identity. The stolen car assumes the identity of a written-off car. This in itself should make you suspicious, but selling a written-off car isn’t illegal; selling one that’s been stolen clearly is.

To protect yourself against buying a ringer, make sure the chassis number on the car matches the one on the V5C, look for evidence of the chassis plate having been tampered with and ensure you’re viewing the car at the address on the V5C. Buy a ringed car and you’ll lose it, along with your money, if the police catch up with you.

Cut and shut

This is arguably the most dangerous scam of all, as it’s the only one where the car is definitely sold in a seriously unsafe condition. It works by buying two cars, cutting them both in half, then welding those two halves together. One will have been in a severe front-end crash while the other will have been in a major rear-end collision. Such cars have no structural integrity and in a smash they’ll just fall apart.

To make sure you don’t buy a cut and shut, look very closely in the door shuts, around the top of the windscreen, underneath the seats and across the underside of the car for signs of welding. Such cars are relatively rare, but they do exist…

Protect yourself

While it’s easy to be taken in by many of these scams, it’s also easy to protect yourself by doing just a few key things before buying. This includes buying an HPI check and sticking to the advice given in some of our previous blogs, including how to tell if a car is stolen, 10 warning signs when buying a used car and the importance of a service history . However, follow these four key pieces of advice, and these alone will stop you being scammed in the majority of cases:

  • Pay with a banker’s draft, not cash. Criminals don’t like banker’s drafts as they’re traceable – cash isn’t.
  • View the car at the address on its Registration Document (V5C) and check that the details on this piece of paper match those on the car.
  • Don’t rely on just a mobile phone number to communicate with the seller. Get a landline number, although it’s still easy for a scammer to disappear once they’ve given you one of these.
  • Ultimately you need to trust your instincts before buying a used car – do you feel that you can trust the seller?

Richard Dredge

December 2015