The Craigslist Car Scam: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself From It

Learn how both car sellers and buyers can fall victim to scammers

Craigslist has long been a popular place for buying and selling used cars, but not everyone walks away happy with what they thought they were getting. Scammers have been targeting the cars and trucks section on Craigslist for years, and if you're planning to do business there, it's worth getting familiar with all the different ways scammers could take advantage of you.

What Is the Craigslist Car Scam?

There isn't just one type of Craigslist car scam, which unfortunately makes it more difficult to identify. A Craigslist car scam can target either someone who's selling a car on Craigslist or someone who's looking to buy a car from Craigslist.

If the scammer is targeting someone selling a car on Craigslist, it typically involves some kind of fraudulent form of payment, after the car has been obtained.

If the scammer is posing as a seller of a car and is targeting someone looking to buy it, they could employ a variety of scam tactics in order to get more money than they deserve, or trick the buyer into thinking they're getting a great deal when in reality they're not.

How Does the Craigslist Car Scam Work?

The Craigslist car scam works differently depending on whether the scammer is targeting a seller or a buyer.

Craigslist Car Scammers Who Target Sellers

Scammers target car sellers on Craigslist by posing as buyers. The scammer might message the seller, offering to purchase the car and pay in some form other than cash — such as cashier's check, money order, PayPal, wire transfer, escrow service or something else.

It's very common for these types of scammers to share details about themselves, often explaining how and why they're out of town so they can get someone else to pick the car up for them. They might even offer more money than the asking price, whether they say it's to cover the cost of having it picked up or some other reason.

Once the payment has been made and the car has been picked up, the innocent seller might later discover that the cashier's check/money order was fraudulent, or they received a fake PayPal payment confirmation email, or the escrow service they used was a complete fake.

If there was an overpayment involved, the seller may have already wired the excess money back to the scammer—leaving them without the car, without the payment and without the extra money they sent to cover the excess.

Craigslist Car Scammers Who Target Buyers

Scammers target car buyers on Craigslist by posing as sellers, using a variety of different scam tactics.

  • They Create Fake Listings: In this scam, there's actually no car to buy. The scammer has simply stolen photos and information from another listing, copied it and re-listed it as their own. Their goal is to pressure potential buyers to make a payment (or several incremental payments of a period of time) before they realize the car doesn't even exist.
  • They Sell Privately: This involves a car dealer posing as a private seller. The buyer might even get to visit the car and meet the scammer in person. They might even get a used car history report. The car dealer poses as a private seller to avoid the Used Car Rule imposed on dealers by the FTC. As a private seller, the car can be sold "as is" and they won't have to deal with any issues that pop up after it's sold.
  • They're Curbstoners: Curbstoning is a term used to describe unlicensed private car sellers who are selling a certain number of cars every year that require a license. Like dealers posing as private sellers, curbstoners are trying to avoid the rules they should be following.
  • They Use Escrow Services: A scammer who wants buyers to make their payment via an escrow service is typically doing so with a compromised or fake escrow service that looks like the real thing. This one goes hand-in-hand with fake listings, where the car doesn't actually exist and the buyer is pressured to buy without seeing the car. Even if the buyer does get the car in the end, but something is discovered to be seriously wrong with it, a fake escrow service can't get the buyer their money back (which is what a real escrow service can do).
  • They Hide Damage and Performance Problems: Scammers know how to hide things they don't want to be seen — whether it's in the photos on the listing or during the visit in person. They've been known to cover up damage from previous accidents, spin the odometer back so it appears to have more miles on it than it really does and limit the test drive to an extremely short, low speed trip.

How Do the Craigslist Car Scammers Find Victims?

Scammers posing as buyers and targeting car sellers will simply choose to contact the seller of a listing for a car that appears to be valuable and in good shape.

Scammers posing as sellers and targeting buyers will often take any buyer who contacts them — but they'll focus on the ones who seem most eager to buy and the least cautious/most casual about who they're buying from. The rest is up to the scam script and tactics, which are only as effective as how gullible and unaware the seller is.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved In This Scam?

If you're selling a car on Craigslist, avoid scammers posing as buyers by taking the follow precautions:

  • Ensure that the buyer is local and able to meet up in person.
  • Agree to be paid the full amount in cash when you meet up.
  • Disregard any potential buyer who wants to get someone else to pick up the car for them and send payment by cashier's check, money order, wire transfer, PayPal, Western Union or any other payment method that isn't cash.

If you're looking to buy a car on Craigslist, avoid scammers posing as sellers by taking the follow precautions:

  • Don't contact any sellers of car listings that appear to be priced unusually low.
  • Perform a reverse Google image search using the photos included in the listing to make sure they're not stolen.
  • Ask for additional photos to ensure that the buyer indeed has the car.
  • Ask for the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to research its history in case of any damage from past accidents.
  • Insist on seeing the car in person, taking it for a test drive for a reasonable amount of time (preferably at freeway speed limits) and paying by cash only.
  • Avoid any sellers who pressure you to put a down payment on the car without letting you see it first.
  • Avoid any sellers who insist that you use an escrow service or any other form of non-cash payment method (such as wire transfers).
  • Beware of sellers who say they're not local, have elaborate stories or excuses and include spelling and grammatical mistakes in their messages.
  • Do your research on the seller by looking up their name along with the term "used car" to avoid getting involved with curbstoners or dealers posing as private sellers.
  • Get a mechanic or auto expert to have a look at the car before you buy it.

I'm Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

If you or someone you know has already fallen victim to a Craigslist car scam, you can report the scam to the authorities so they can investigate and warn others about it. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that you'll get your car or your money back from a scammer if you report it — whether you were the buyer or the seller of the car.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted For the Craigslist Car Scam?

If you're selling a car on Craigslist, disregard any potential buyer who can't meet up in person or pay you in cash. If you're looking to buy a car, your best bet is to avoid looking for one on Craigslist altogether.

But if you must, make sure you avoid any seller who prices their cars unusually low and stop communicating immediately with anyone who won't let you see the car in person, pressures you to make a deposit, or insists on receiving payment that isn't in cash.