Exposed: Scammers targeting YOU with ‘phantom’ cars

  • Fraudsters targeting private classifieds
  • 50 fake shipping and payment sites closed EVERY day
  • Parker's prevents £100,000+ worth of fraud

Since September 2008 Parker's has helped stop buyers from being conned out of more than £100,000 in a 'phantom' car scam.

Some of the UK’s most popular private classified advert websites have been targeted in a scam that could be swindling unsuspecting car buyers out of thousands of pounds. Criminal gangs - mostly operating from Eastern Europe - are continuing to target buyers, despite warnings.

The scam worked with adverts appearing on Autotrader and Pistonheads with ‘too good to be true offers’, including Volkswagens and Audis being offered at a discount of thousands of pounds.

Although the pictures used in the adverts make the car look genuine, these have in fact been stolen from reviews on parkers.co.uk. The cars do exist, but they’re not owned by the advertiser.

Parker’s found a 2008 Audi A3 Cabriolet 2.0T FSI, with pictures from our review, being advertised for just £5,350; list price is £27,600. We posed as buyers and contacted the seller, a ‘Catherine Jones’, who told us she had moved to Switzerland and simply couldn’t sell it – hence the low price. When we offered to come to Switzerland to view the car, she made an excuse about being on a business trip and insisted that it would be delivered to us.

She then suggested that we had an HPI check carried out on the car, but said “I am not to [sic] happy about giving out the vin/chassis number and the documents of the car (for the moment) due to vehicle identities being cloned”. Buyers should always check-out a car by using the car’s unique VIN number.

Other parts of e-mails received from ‘Catherine Jones’ that sent alarm bells ringing included bad grammar, using Ebay’s Protection Program (which doesn’t exist) and shipping costs from Switzerland of just £500. She then insisted that we sent her our details, including Ebay user name, full name and address and postcode to be entered into a fake escrow site. Escrow is a money transfer method typically used in scams like this: victims believe that their cash is being held in trust by a third party, when actually it's been syphoned off by the fraudsters.

It’s the same story that the seller told a Parker’s reader when he enquired about a VW Tiguan, also from Catherine Jones. The content and wording of the e-mail was identical. He was offered a 2007 2.0-litre TDI model for a mere £5,570 – about the same cost as a small city car. The same model costs £21,700 new from a VW dealer.

"This is a known fraud"

Adrian Black, Chairman of the Vehicle Safe Trading Advisory Group (VSTAG), an industry body set up to combat vehicle related fraud said: "This is a known fraud. These sort of scams are run by criminal gangs, mainly out of Eastern Europe. Between us [the main classified sites], we stop many of these scams at source, but some do get through.

"When they do, we have many back-room processes for spotting and removing them. E-mail addresses and details of fake adverts are exchanged between our sites (which include ebaymotors.co.uk, motors.co.uk and autotrader.co.uk) and we notify the police on a case-by-case basis."

He added that between 20 and 50 fake shipping and escrow companies are closed down by the police EVERY DAY.

Although the fraudsters have principally targeted the above sites, they also operate elsewhere and use a variety of different aliases.

Spot a scam e-mail:
*
Most are from yahoo.co.uk / aol.co.uk e-mail addresses.

* The cars are suspiciously cheap. Always check against our prices.

* The photographs can be traced back to online reviews.

* The 'owner' will be conveniently unavailable if you ask to meet them.

* They will insist that you have a history check carried out on the car to prove it's OK.

* Subject lines in the e-mail follow a template and usually start with the year: i.e 2008 Audi A3.

* Always copy-and-paste the sender's e-mail address and suspicious parts of the e-mail into google between quote marks. This will show up if they have other cars for sale or if they're using a scam template.

Remember: NEVER hand over any money without seeing the vehicle first.