Australians have already lost over $288,000 to vehicle scams in the first quarter of this year, more than all losses reported to Scamwatch in 2019, and scammers have now begun impersonating defence personnel to con their victims.
In a vehicle scam, scammers post fake online listings offering to sell in-demand cars at well below market value to lure potential buyers looking for a second hand vehicle. Scammers seek payment to secure the car for the buyer but never deliver the vehicle.
Vehicle scams are commonly hosted on sites such as Facebook Marketplace, Autotrader, Car Sales, Cars Guide and Gumtree.
“As second hand car sales increased during the pandemic, unfortunately so did vehicle scams. If current trends continue, Australians could lose much more to vehicle scams this year than the $1 million lost in 2020,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said.
“We want to raise awareness of these scams to reduce the number of people who may be vulnerable to them.”
A new technique we are seeing is scammers pretending to be defence personnel. In 97 per cent of reports received this year, the scammer claimed to be in the military (navy, army and air force), or to work for the Department of Defence, and said they wanted to sell their vehicle before deployment. This sought to create a sense of urgency with buyers and explained the unusually low listing price of the vehicles and why buyers could not inspect them prior to payment.
Email addresses that do not bear the legitimate the defence email format of @defence.gov.au may be an indication of a scam, but even the correct email format does not guarantee the car ad is not a scam, as scammers are able to spoof email addresses. It is best to look for all warning signs to avoid being scammed.
“A price that is too good to be true should be a warning sign for potential buyers. If a classified ad offers a vehicle at a very low price, the ad might not be legitimate. For example, one Scamwatch report noted a listing that advertised a car for nearly $10,000 below its market value to entice buyers looking for a bargain.”
Vehicle scammers often seek payment via a third party website. A large number of reports to Scamwatch mentioned the use of escrow agents, a third party who is supposed to ‘hold’ the money from the buyer until goods are received, before releasing the funds to the seller. Other commonly requested payment methods include eBay, direct bank transfer or international money transfers.
“If the seller claims to be unavailable and insists on payment before meeting the buyer or allowing them to pick up their new car, this should raise suspicions,” Ms Rickard said.
“It is relatively common for scammers to claim that they are travelling or moving away to avoid meeting buyers before payment.”
“Always try to inspect the vehicle before purchase and avoid unusual payment methods. If you have any doubts, do not go ahead with the deal,” Ms Rickard said.
In addition to losing money to vehicle scams, around 20 per cent of consumers who reported vehicle scams have lost personal information, after providing their address, phone number and copies of their driver’s license to the scammer. To protect your identity, never provide your personal details to someone you have only met online.
“Fortunately, over 80 per cent of people who reported vehicle scams to us managed to avoid losing money by identifying the scam early. We encourage consumers to trust their instincts. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Ms Rickard said.