The used car scam: and how to beat it

A buyer checking documents: HPI

Danielle Sterling from Durham, was shopping for a second-hand car, when she came across exactly what she was looking for: a used Honda Civic selling for just £4,000. She contacted the seller by email, who was happy to sell. He said he wanted to do the whole thing by email because he lived in Ireland, and wanted to use an escrow service.

It was when she did a Google search for the service he wanted to use that the alarm bells started ringing.
Sterling had been able to link to the company from the email the seller had sent, but when she searched for it separately she couldn't find it anywhere.

She was still keen to buy the car, but didn't want to send off £4,000 and end up with nothing, so she did an HPI Check.

The scam

Sterling had almost fallen victim to what is known as an 'escrow con'. Escrow is a perfectly legitimate financial transaction, where you pay money to a third party, who holds onto it until the purchase is completed, and then they hand it on to the seller.

In the scam, the escrow is just part of an intricate web of lies. In reality it's just the seller in disguise. The car being sold did exist, it just didn't belong to the person who was pretending to sell it. If the money had been transferred to the fake escrow, it would have disappeared, the car would have failed to materialise, and the seller would have been long gone.


Fortunately Sterling decided to check the car's history before handing over any money, so she did an HPI search. As well as confirming whether the car is currently registered as stolen with the police, has been written-off, or is on finance, the HPI Check looks at the ownership history, and protects buyers against clones - up to the value of £4,000.

The search confirmed that the car had had two previous owners and that the last sale of the vehicle was just a month ago. However, the seller insisted he'd owned the car since 2008.

She decided not to buy, and reported the buyer, She said: "When I reported the incident, I was told that one buyer had been scammed by the same seller and lost over £7,500. That could have been me. I consider myself very lucky."

"This buyer had a very lucky escape, as she was only a few clicks away from setting up an account on the intermediary site and forwarding £4,000 for a car that didn't exist," explains Nicola Johnson, Consumer Services Manager of HPI. "It's shocking to think that innocent buyers fall for scams like this every day. If a seller asks for payment before the buyer even sees the vehicle, this is cause for serious concern. It's easy to be swayed by a rock bottom price, but no bargain is worth the risk. An HPI Check is crucial in protecting consumers against the threat of falling victim to fraud."

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