How to avoid scams when buying a car online

As some of you may have seen on the Tempest development blog, some scammers have recently been impersonating AutoTempest by registering similar domains like “autostempest.com” (with an extra ‘s’) and “autostempestgroup.com”. Their scam goes something like this: They post vehicles for sale on craigslist below market value, then tell prospective buyers to complete the transaction online “via AutoTempest”, pointing to their scam website. They then proceed to solicit a wire transfer through their site (and email) for the purchase of a vehicle which, of course, doesn’t actually exist.

As mentioned in the Tempest development blog post, we’re doing what we can to get these scammers shut down, but in the meantime I wanted to offer some tips to ensure you never get caught by a scam like this one.

  • First off, our actual site is https://www.autotempest.com. You can verify that autotempest.com is the ‘real’ site a couple ways. For example, go to archive.org and search autotempest.com and you’ll find records going back many years; we’ve been doing this for a long time. These scam domains have no or very limited records. Similarly if you do a google search for our domain (“autotempest.com”) you can find forum and blog mentions of us going back many years, whereas all the references to these impersonating scammers are more recent, and are a mix of fake positive reviews and warnings from victims of these scams.
  • Also, we (the real AutoTempest) don’t sell cars. We’re a search engine that helps people find listings on all the major listings sites across the internet. But we don’t have our own vehicles that we sell. So if anyone is saying they’re AutoTempest and are selling a car, it’s a scam.

That said, there are steps you can take more generally to make sure you don’t get scammed regardless of where you find your next car.  As a general rule you should not send large amounts of money to people online for a product you don’t have in your possession. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy a used car long distance, but there’s a right way to do it:

  • First, you’ll want to ask the seller to send you detailed pictures of the car, including one of the VIN plate; you can then look up its Carfax report and check that that makes sense. That’s not enough though, as there’s no proof the VIN they send is actually from a car in their possession.
  • Next, if you’re planning to buy the car, you should find a dealer in that make or an independent garage with good reviews local to the car, and arrange with the seller to take the car there for a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). You pay the garage/dealer for the inspection, and you deal directly with them. Ask them to verify the VIN on the vehicle matches the one you were given. Once this is done, you know that the seller actually has the car they’re claiming to. If a seller refuses to take the car to an independent shop for inspection at your expense, you should stop dealing with them immediately; if not an outright scam, they’re likely trying to hide something at least, or are just unreasonable.  This step definitely would have caught the autoStempest scam. If you’re going to go ahead and buy the car though, you would still be taking a big risk sending money at this point.
  • So, assuming the inspection goes well and you want to make the purchase, you have two options. The first option is to fly out there and do the deal in person, then drive the car back. The second option is to find someone local to the vehicle who will act on your behalf. Some dealers will work as brokers for this kind of transaction. If you google something like car purchase broker [name of city] you should find some companies that will provide this service. Again, it needs to be you who finds this agent; if it’s someone the seller chooses it defeats the purpose. You’ll also need to choose a shipping company. (Check out our page on that here.) Then you’ll send money to your broker, and they will essentially perform the transaction locally on your behalf (if necessary, couriering or faxing you paperwork to sign; exactly what’s required differs by jurisdiction.)

In summary, you shouldn’t just send money to the seller long distance, even once you’ve verified the car is real, unless you have a separate relationship with this person such that you know it isn’t a scam. The one exception is with a known trusted business. For example, you can make a car purchase on eBay without risking the seller running away with your money, as long as you complete the payment through eBay, since they have protections for buyers. However, make sure you’re actually on ebay.com, not a fake site. For example, someone could register eboy.com, or ebay.com.tesla_p90d_48000_with_autopilot.scamsite.ru.  I would probably still use a broker for a large value transaction though, since being stuck in eBay’s dispute resolution process wouldn’t be fun.

A more clear-cut exception is Carvana (carvana.com), which is a legitimate online dealership—you can verify that via BBB and online history. It’s safe to send money there as long as you verify you’re actually on carvana.com. There’s no need to use a broker for that one since you’re dealing directly with them, not an independent seller like on ebay, and they are a legit business and offer a money back guarantee. To be safe though, avoid paying by wire transfer, but rather pay by credit card, which will allow you to stop the payment (generally for up to 30 days). Ditto for anything purchased online—don’t wire money.

So there are exceptions if you’re careful, but you need to be really sure you know what you’re doing. If you have any doubt at all, or you’re not 100% sure you understand the distinctions I made above, I would stick to completing transactions locally in person, or via a trusted broker whom you find independently of the seller.

So, now that you know how to avoid any possible scams, you can head over to the REAL AutoTempest.com to search all the top listings sites at once and find your next car!

Nathan Stretch Founder & CEO

Founder of the AutoTempest used car search engine, as well as SearchTempest.com. I do a bit of everything around here now, and may even get a chance to write some blog posts! I'm also a car enthusiast. Currently I own a 2009 911 Turbo and a 2006 Honda S2000 (which you'll likely see on the track if you follow the blog or our Youtube channel!)