A car with a sold sign at a car dealer

Fake online car dealers 'clone' genuine retailers and lure victims with bargains

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is

Fraudsters are using the names and details of legitimate car dealerships in order to trick consumers into handing over money for cars that do not exist.

An investigation by the BBC exposed a fake car retailer using the name Auto-Promotions — a former dealer whose premises in Fife, Scotland is now occupied by a genuine car garage — which had defrauded unwitting customers out of thousands of pounds.

The modus operandi of the scammers in question appears to have been to advertise used cars online at bargain prices and to get victims to part with large deposits to secure the vehicles.

The cars displayed on the professional-looking websites were all real, with most having valid MOTs, but their pictures and details were stolen from genuine dealer websites where they were advertised online at much higher prices.

The names of the fake garages appear to have been sourced from Companies House, with additional details such as the addresses of real garages and details of directors added to make the scam sites look more convincing.

Pietro Pagliuca, a victim from West Yorkshire, transferred almost £4,000 to Auto-Promotions for a used Nissan Qashqai after his old one broke down.

After a phone chat with someone purporting to be the sales director, Pagliuca decided to part with his cash. He was even more reassured when he saw what he thought was a company stamp on the invoice they sent him.

“I honestly didn’t have doubts about them. It all looked legit, and a lot of companies deliver stuff these days,” he told the BBC.

The Auto-Promotions website was active from March until the time it was shut down by police following the BBC’s investigation, with the criminals behind it remaining at large.

In the time that the site was operational, hundreds of second-hand cars were advertised on the site.

Harry Cairney, the owner of the garage in Fife whose address was published on the scammers’ website, reported that he had received hundreds of calls and visits over the past few months enquiring about vehicles advertised on the fake Auto-Promotions website.

He said that he had been confronted several times by angry victims and said that he and his business had suffered as a result.

‘I honestly didn’t have doubts about them. It all looked legit’

Graeme Sheach, the retired director of the legitimate Auto-Promotions business, told the BBC he was furious his “good name and reputation” had been taken by the criminals, even going so far as to hire “ethical hackers” to try to take the website down, but to no avail.

In another investigation, Car Dealer Magazine looked into the AD Car Sales website, whose business address was listed as being in Kirkcaldy, also in Fife.

The magazine had been contacted by a reader who had seen an advert for a 2016 Mini Countryman with just under 20,000 miles on the clock for sale at £4,770. A check with vehicle valuations organisation CAP HPI revealed that a Countryman of the same age in similar condition to the one advertised ought to be valued at around £10,000.

Another consumer contacted AD Car Sales about a car and immediately became suspicious when they were asked over the phone to pay a deposit to secure the car, while a third told Car Dealer that the scammers had wanted him to pay for a car in full via bank transfer and not by credit card.

One garage owner on Millie Road, Kirkcaldy said that he has had “dozens of people” turn up at his body shop looking for AD Car Sales, including one who came all the way from London to see a car that didn’t exist.

According to Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, there were 2,969 reports of online vehicle fraud in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2021, up 21% from 2,459 reports in 2019. That fraud cost consumers a total of £9.5m last year.

National Trading Standards says consumers looking for a bargain due to the cost-of-living crisis, coupled with new car supply problems, means criminals have identified a demand that they will always exploit.

How to avoid fraud when buying a car online

Buying cars online can be convenient, quick, transparent and pressure free, but the increased anonymity requires extra precautions. In light of the scams uncovered by the BBC and Car Dealer, buyers should take a few precautions when buying a car advertised online. In addition to paying for a full vehicle history check via the likes of HPI Check or the RAC, heed the following:

  1. Question mega deals: The first big red flag is if a deal looks too good to be true, in which case it probably is. If a car is advertised as being well below its market value without a good reason, then the seller is either hiding something about the car or may be a scammer.
  2. Buy from reputable websites: The scammers discovered in the investigation above had the veneer of legitimacy and even answered phonecalls. Doing thorough research including Googling the dealer name and looking for customer reviews might help expose dodgy dealers, though we recommend only buying cars through known, reputable companies.
  3. Ask for extra details: See if you can get more details about the car, such as specific images not displayed online or the vehicle identification number (VIN). If the seller refuses, walk away.
  4. Be cautious before handing over money: It’s never a good idea to part with money before you know for certain that both the business and the car are real, and if the seller won’t let you even see the car without a deposit (as was the case with Auto-Promotions and AD Car Sales), then walk away.
  5. Be cautious about giving out personal details: Some scammers may interested in your personal data in order to steal your identity. Never give out bank passwords or PINs, and be cautious when passing on credit card numbers.
  6. Don’t pay by debit card or money transfer: Credit cards offer an extra level of protection to consumers. Avoid using bank transfers or debit cards to pay for cars as it’s harder for banks to recover lost money. And though it should act in your best interests, if your bank believes you acted negligently when transferring the money they may refuse to issue a refund. If you pay by credit card you can avoid interest charges by paying off the balance immediately.

If you do believe you’ve been a victim of fraud, contact your bank immediately.

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