By Kevin Ransom, AOL Autos
Avoid being scammed by online dealers by following these few tips and reporting suspected fraudulent activity (age fotostock).
Call it a sad commentary on our modern world, but we’ve grown accustomed to tales of identity theft. It seems that those unwilling to woodchip their credit card receipts have a decent chance of opening up a Visa bill full of pain. A new twist on this sort of criminal activity is making its way through the used car market, however, but it doesn’t involve stealing identities from individuals. Instead, thieves are impersonating entire dealerships in order to bilk car shoppers out of too-good-to-be-true online sales.
In June, scoundrels essentially “stole” the name of a reputable Memphis car dealer, America Auto Sales, and set up a website -- www.americautosales.com (now defunct) -- claiming to be that dealership. Then the scammers advertised “below-market prices for repossessed cars.” (America Auto Sales’ actual website is www.memphisautoworld.com and it does not sell cars over the Internet.)
Of course, the reason the prices were so low is because the cars didn’t exist. Within weeks of the launch of the phony website, the Better Business Bureau received more than 1,500 inquires about this so-called “dealership” from consumers all over the country -- many of whom had already been bilked out of their down payments.
The Memphis dealership itself got 1,000 calls from consumers who had shopped for a car on the bogus site, many wondering why they hadn’t yet received the vehicles they ordered, after laying out significant amounts of cash for “deposits.”
Further investigation revealed the similar sites have also popped up, never for more than a few weeks at a time, in states such as Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico and Texas, dating back to December 2009. But none generated nearly as much activity as the bogus site that was dishonestly posing as the Memphis dealership.
“The people who made ‘deposits’ generally lost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000,” says Nancy Crawford, spokesperson for the Memphis office of the Better Business Bureau.
She said the scam is being investigated by IC3.gov -- an Internet crime tracking website that is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and Bureau of Justice Assistance. “But they’re telling us it is highly unlikely that these deposits will ever be recovered, because the criminals set it up in a way that makes it almost impossible to trace them.” One of those tactics is that it appears this scam was conducted from overseas, said Crawford.
AOL Autos called two of the victims of this scam to ask them about their experiences with these hucksters.
Amanda Hanson, from suburban Cleveland, has Multiple Sclerosis and is on disability. She moves with the help of a wheelchair or a walker. She has a master’s degree in microbiology, and pursued a career in that field for several years, but is now unable to work due to her condition. “I’d been driving a [Chevy] Cavalier, but with my condition, it’s hard getting in and out of a coupe, so I was looking for a sedan,” she says.
“We decided I should buy a new car that was easier to get in and out of, and that had a trunk that was big enough for me to fold up my wheelchair and put it back there. And I found a 2006 Cobalt on this website, with 57,000 miles, selling for only $3,198.”
Hanson did her due diligence: She researched the actual dealer, and saw that it had a good rating from the BBB, unaware that the scammers had stolen the dealer’s name and set up this bogus website.
So Hanson sent in a deposit of $2,258, including shipping costs, and was told the car would be delivered to her home in a few days. But the crooks insisted that the deposit only be sent via MoneyGram Money Transfer, not by check and not by using a credit card. That was a key element of the scam, because MoneyGram Money transfers can be picked up anywhere in the world without the person having to show any ID or provide any identifying code, explains Crawford. So, the culprits cannot be traced.
“They were even told to specifically use MoneyGram Money Transfer, as opposed to MoneyGram Express, which does require that whoever picks it up provide a numerical code,” says Crawford.
Even worse, the money Hanson sent for her “deposit” was inheritance money her husband had recently received.
“I did think it was odd that this dealer only communicated via e-mail, that we couldn’t actually call them and talk to anyone,” says Hanson. “So about five days after I sent the money, and my car still had not arrived, and I tried to log back onto their site, but couldn’t. I didn’t know it was a scam until I saw a news story on TV.”
With Hanson’s income being restricted to her disability benefits -- and with her husband currently unemployed due to the recession -- that $2,258 represents a big financial hit. “It really was a hardship for us, to lose that money,” says Hanson. “I was very upset and angry for a few weeks, but now I have resigned myself to it. It’s a learning situation, I guess, but I am going to continue speaking out about this.”
What those who were bilked have learned, says Crawford, is to be cognizant of these red flags when doing business with online car-sales operations:
1. Prices that seem too good to be true.
2. A dealer that only communicates through e-mail or online chat, and never by phone.
3. A dealer who only accepts payment by money wire transfer.
The second victim of this ruse that we contacted was Walt Dworschak, of Corona, California. He’s also on disability, due to his epilepsy. “I’d just gotten my driver’s license back, after not having it for a year. Prior to that, I wasn’t legally permitted to drive, because they were concerned I might have a seizure while driving,” explains Dworschak.
“But I’d been under a neurologist’s care for a year, and he had me on a medication, and he determined that I was now seizure-free. So I was pretty excited about being able to drive again,” says Dworschak. “So my wife did a search for Carfax, and this website was the first one that came up. They listed a repossessed ’09 Ford F-150 for only $7,800. I thought, ‘That’s a great deal,’ because the low Blue Book value for that truck was $14,000.”
Like Hanson, Dworschak did his homework, and also found that the actual dealer had high ratings. But like Hanson, he didn’t know that the grifters had essentially “stolen” the dealer’s identify. He went through the same steps as Hanson, in his case sending in a $3,000 deposit, including shipping charges. When a week had gone by and his truck still hadn’t been delivered, he called the dealer.
“The dealer didn’t know what I was talking about, and then said, ‘Oh, you’re not one of those people who got scammed, are you?’ I said, ‘What scam?’“ recounted Dworschak.
Losing $3,000 was also a lot of money for Dworschack, given that his income is limited to his disability benefits and his wife only works part-time. “She has a car, but needs it for work, so, I guess it will still be a long time before I’m driving again.”
Ultimately, how does one account for the blackness in the hearts of the sort of sociopaths who would do this kind of thing to the poor and disabled?
“That’s what’s so sad about this,” laments Crawford, “the way these scammers target people who already have limited funds. Because if someone has more financial means, they are probably not likely to go to websites to find really cheap prices on re-possessed cars.”
The criminals in the Memphis case have not yet been brought to justice.If you feel you are the victim of a scam like the one described above, please contact the Better Business Bureau by clicking here.