How to buy a car on Facebook without getting scammed
Buying a used car from a private seller will always save you money compared to purchasing the same car from a dealership. Private sellers don't have to pay for fancy showrooms and can therefore sell for a better price. You also skip the high-pressure sales pitches from dealership salespeople. At KeySavvy, we've bought cars from private sellers to help us develop the best possible service for our customers. This article describes what we do to buy cars on Facebook Marketplace and other sites without getting scammed.
Step one is to check the ad for signs that the vehicle may not actually exist. Photos are not necessarily proof that the seller actually has the vehicle! Often the sale is presented as an “urgent transaction” to pressure you to make a decision hastily. They might claim to be moving, dealing with a military deployment, a divorce settlement, or a relative who has died. Seek documentation that verifies the seller's identity and confirms their story. Don't let the fear of missing out cloud your judgment.
You can also ask the seller for the VIN, if not already in their ad. Pull a NMVTIS title history report, CARFAX, or AutoCheck using the VIN to verify some of the information provided by the seller, like the mileage. If the seller won't give you the VIN number, it's a red flag. Contrary to what some people believe, the VIN is not private data. If you're using KeySavvy, we'll provide you and your seller with a NMVTIS title report.
If you're buying locally, be sure to meet in a safe public place and consider bringing a friend along. In person, you can look over the car and make sure it's in the condition you expect.
Verify the vehicle's VIN number matches what was provided in the ad. The VIN can be found in several places on the car, such as on the door panel or on the lower left corner of the dashboard, visible from the outside. You should also get a pre-purchase inspection to learn of any needed repairs. It's very easy to miss mechanical problems that could be costly to repair on a short test drive.
If you're buying from an out of state private seller, read our article about how to pay an out of state seller. When buying sight unseen, it's even more important to get an inspection by a mechanic you choose.
Does the seller actually own the car? Verify their identity by comparing information on their driver's license, registration card, title (if they have it), and license plate. Be sure all the information is consistent. The driver's license name should match the registration, and the registration should match the plate on the vehicle. The seller should be able to show you the title, if they don't have a loan. Compare the name and VIN on the title with the registration and driver's license. The title should have your seller's name printed on it, not written in as a buyer. If a different name is printed on the title, your seller could be trying to "jump" or "skip" the title, which is illegal. If this is the case, request they register the car first and get a new title in their name. Otherwise, getting in touch with the actual owner to help resolve any registration issues could be impossible.
An unethical dealer could also be posing as a private seller to avoid certain dealership regulations designed to protect consumers. This illegal scheme is known as “curbstoning”. Thoroughly verifying the seller's identity and legal ownership of the vehicle will prevent you from being a victim of this practice.
Be sure the title is clear and there are no existing loans or liens. As auto loans become increasingly longer, it's likely the vehicle will have an outstanding loan that the seller has not completely paid off. In some cases, these liens may not be listed on the title. The lender can repossess the car after the sale, so it's crucial that the seller has legal ownership when you buy the car. You will not receive the title (the lender holds it in most states), and you can't register the vehicle without it.
It's possible to buy a car with an outstanding lien, but additional steps need to be taken to ensure you'll receive a clear title. Read our article about how to safely buy a car with a lien.
Another common scam is failing to disclose title brands, or even illegally "washing" brands off the title. Title brands are records of potentially hazardous use or damage, such as flood exposure or "salvage" status, that are part of the vehicle's permanent title history. Title brands are a warning sign that the vehicle may require higher-than-expected maintenance, and an honest seller will disclose any title brands in their vehicle ad. The price should be significantly lower to reflect the higher maintenance cost and reduced resale value. A NMVTIS report will disclose any title brands and they are usually printed on the title itself.
Facebook Marketplace doesn't facilitate payment for vehicles, so you're on your own to find a secure way to pay your seller. The Internet Crime Complaint Center receives thousands of vehicle transaction scam reports each year.
When we bought cars from private sellers ourselves, we used KeySavvy (surprised?). KeySavvy is like an escrow service, but designed specifically for vehicle transactions. Buyers can pay online and we guarantee they'll get a clear title, even if their seller has a loan. We also generate a bill of sale and can issue a temporary permit so it's legal to drive right away.
If using any online payment service, verify their legitimacy by searching online for reviews and verify any licenses they claim to have. Check the URL of the website you're on, look for slight misspellings, or random letters and numbers. Scammers can create websites that look and feel like the real thing, but will use a slightly different URL. This is called “phishing”.
If paying by cash, your seller will probably want to meet at their bank so they can deposit it immediately. Be aware that carrying large amounts of cash is dangerous in any setting and is not recommended. Asking for cash and dismissing other forms of payment like a cashier's check or KeySavvy should raise a red flag. Cash that is lost or stolen is gone, and the chance of recovering it is improbable at best. Never share your account credentials or share your mobile banking app with anyone. Scammers may use the provided information to steal your identity, and money could be stolen from your account. Don't pay a seller directly with gift cards, wire transfers, or reloadable prepaid cards. These methods of payment are irreversible and untraceable, and you will have no way to get your money back if you can't register your new vehicle.
Don't be emotional, do your research, and be patient. If the situation seems too good to be true, it probably is. That being said, many people have downright enjoyable experiences buying from private sellers. We did, our customers at KeySavvy do, and we hope you do, too!