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BBB Tip: Buying a car online

The ability to purchase goods and services over the Internet has permanently changed how countless industries conduct business, especially after the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Online marketplaces remove much of the stress associated with in-person purchases of expensive items, such as automobiles.  


There are many benefits to purchasing a car online. In addition to reducing stress and drive-time, communicating with a seller for an online purchase is often done through email, which provides an opportunity to thoroughly review the terms of purchase. This allows the buyer to make a decision on their own time – even if it is after the regular business hours for the dealership. Communicating with an automobile dealer remotely also detaches the buyer from the purchase, reducing the emotion involved in the decision-making process. 


However, interacting with an online marketplace does come with inherent risks, especially when dealing with a private seller. BBB Scam Tracker receives multiple reports of misrepresentative or fraudulent car purchasing scams every year, with often disastrous results for the victim. 


After contacting a seller for a classic car online, one Texas resident reported that the seller “was on an oil rig in the Gulf but said I could buy the car through a shipping company. It seemed the car was being stored in Washington State and all I had to do is send $12,000 to them. The car was priced way under market value, which was the first red flag. There was also no phone number associated with the shipping company. When I asked for the VIN, they stated it was illegal to disclose that information. When I searched for the business on Google, I couldn’t find a building at the address they provided and I walked away from the deal.” 


If you are considering buying a car online, BBB recommends the following tips to help you avoid getting scammed and get the best deal possible:


Set a budget. Before you set out to find the perfect car, it is important to establish a budget. You will also want to factor in monthly expenses that come with owning a vehicle, including insurance payments, fuel, parking, and routine maintenance and repairs. A clearly defined budget will make choosing a vehicle, negotiating with a dealer, and getting a loan much easier.


Do thorough research. Once you have narrowed your search, compare models you are interested in keeping a close eye on safety ratings, owner reviews, and warranties. Visit manufacturer websites to see detailed images of each car and research MPG statistics, interior options, cargo space, towing capacity, and more. The additional time you spend on these initial steps, the more comfortable you will feel when making a purchase.


Shop for a deal. These may include cash-back deals, rebates, low-interest financing options, or incentives for recent graduates, military veterans, Uber and Lyft drivers, or first responders. In addition, many dealers are willing to make price cuts on previous year models or any model that did not sell as well as expected. Purchasing one of these surplus vehicles can mean extra incentives from the dealer.