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Grafik eines Mannes der mit Tablet vor einem übergroßen Bildschirm mit dargestelltem Auto steht. Auch auf dem Schirm Schaltfläche "Kaufen" und darüber "Verlaufer kontaktieren"
Manche bestellen Gebrauchtwägen online ohne sie zu begutachten Image: Net-Vector / shutterstock

Online fraud in used car sales

Time and again, the ECC is contacted by desperate car buyers of used cars who have been defrauded. In this article, however, we do not deal with warranty problems of a technical nature and car purchases below value due to hidden defects. This time we are talking about advance fee fraud through the bogus sale of cars on large online platforms or fake sites.

On Europe's largest car market on the web, "Autoscout24" or on domestic marketplaces such as "Willhaben" or "Gebrauchtwagen.at" as well as other portals, one can also come across dubious offers despite the efforts of the platform operators. Unfortunately, those who have been defrauded often contact us too late, after they have transferred a deposit or even the full price. Thus, the loss of money can usually no longer be reversed. This warning article is intended to prevent it from getting that far and illustrates the scam in the entry by means of two EVZ cases. This is followed by our general advice.

Advertisement of a white Toyota off-road vehicle with technical and contact details
Fake car ad Image: ECC Austria

Mr N. from Lower Austria wants to buy a used off-road vehicle and have it transported to a third country outside the EU. He finds a white Toyota Land Cruiser on an internet marketplace. The price of 6900 US dollars is agreed with the seller in French. Half as a deposit immediately, the other half as soon as the car is loaded onto the ship, with the bill of lading as confirmation.

When he receives the bill of lading, he also wants to transfer the second instalment according to the agreement. However, an alert employee of his bank warns him of a possible fraud attempt. We check and also see indications of this: Since the alleged trader is apparently based in Poland and the customer also lives in the EU, the settlement in dollars is the first suspicious factor. Together with the ECC Poland, we check the documents more closely. The stamps of the Polish Chamber of Commerce are forged.

In addition, the fraudsters obtained the address and contact details of a legitimate Polish trading company, which appears here falsely as the seller, as well as of another forwarding company, which was supposed to ship the car. We instruct Mr N. not to pay the "missing" 3450 to a dubious Portuguese account under any circumstances. Instead, he is to report fraud to the police, and if it is still possible, to recover the first payment via his bank.

Advertisement of a purple Renault van with technical and contact details.
Fake car ad Image: ECC Austria

Ms V. from Vienna found a spacious van on autoscout24. The seller suggests that the car be brought from Norway to Luxembourg to the buyer's parents via a British transport company. He asked for 30% as an advance payment, a hefty 9000€. The balance is to be paid on delivery.

The consumer is sceptical at first and calls England to check whether the transport company exists. This seems to be in order, she makes the down payment. However, unexpected problems occur at every border the car seems to cross (Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg).

The seller repeatedly writes that the authorities demand import duties and national taxes. Supposedly a security measure against her as a buyer selling the car in pieces. In the end, Miss V. pays all these fraudulent claims based on certificates forged by the seller and ends up losing 30,000 euros. For a car she never saw and which probably never existed.

Role of Fake Shipping Companies

at purchase

As our cases show again and again, and as the numerous warnings from Watchlist Internet also make clear, real and fictitious freight forwarders often play a fundamental role in online rip-offs involving used cars. Because the car is supposedly abroad, the purchase is supposed to be made via a freight forwarder. In return, victims are tricked into paying further fees or additional insurance. The victims are supposed to transfer the money in advance to a trust account. The following advantages make the deal palatable:

  • The purchase price includes both the transport costs and registration in Austria (payment of NOVA tax).
  • The freight forwarder would act as a secure trustee and would also take the car back and refund the purchase price within a short trial period if the customer did not like it.

when selling

Fake shipping company fraud is also on the rise, but in reverse. Private sellers are contacted by fraudsters on sales platforms. Since the supposedly interested parties live abroad, they are supposed to make an advance payment for the transport to a forwarding company they have selected. In return, the scammers send the sellers fake bank statements or proof of payment of the purchase price and assurances of maximum security. However, the shipping company does not exist, or the logos and documents have been copied from those of real companies, and the seller's payment to the dubious account is lost.

As soon as the victims pay, fake confirmations are sent from the fake shipping company to give the appearance that everything is up and running. After the criminals have lulled their victims into a sense of security with the professionally fabricated invoices, including details of the transaction and the car, they try to extract even more money in the worst case. Thus, events are invented for further payments, such as surprising transport expenses, customs claims or insurance back payments.

Pictogram shows banknote above an outstretched hand with rotating arrows

Recurring payments

What is Escrow Scam?

In the cases described, it is an advance fee scam where the opera pays the money into an escrow account set up by criminals. When a fraudulent organisation sets up a bogus company as an intermediary and makes it appear as a legitimate independent company for fraudulent purposes, it is a so-called escrow scam. In this case, criminals even exploit the initial scepticism and caution of interested buyers. Thinking that the involvement of the second company would secure the deal, the victims are tricked into paying more money by falsifying certificates, IDs and invoices.

Pictograme shows business building and above crossed out € bank notes

Bogus Escrow

Risky payment method

Criminals try to get their victims to pay in advance, because once initiated, this is very difficult to prevent and can hardly be booked back. On the web shop page, other payment options such as credit card, Klarna or Paypal are often displayed, and this makes the page look established. However, when checking out, only a direct bank transfer is available. Allegedly because of technical problems, or because the desired payment method is not offered in the country concerned. Therefore, one should never pay in advance. Instead, a payment method that allows a chargeback in case of emergency is much safer.

Criminals try to get their victims to pay in advance, because once initiated, this is very difficult to prevent and can hardly be booked back. On the web shop page, other payment options such as credit card, Klarna or Paypal are often displayed, and this makes the page look established. However, when checking out, only a direct bank transfer is available. Allegedly because of technical problems, or because the desired payment method is not offered in the country concerned. Under no circumstances should you pay in advance. Instead, it is always safer to use payment methods that allow a chargeback in case of emergency. These are precisely those offered by the scam site only visually; credit card, Paypal and other payment service providers with security.

Pictogram about "Payment options"

Payment options

Warning notices for buying used cars online

  • The vehicle cannot be inspected because it is located in another country. Therefore, a trial period and a right of return may be promised. This is unusual for private sales on platforms and for used cars in general.
  • The car in good condition costs suspiciously little in comparison. Get an overview of the real market situation, e.g. with this online calculator.
  • Stolen photos are often used for the online offer. To be on the safe side, ask the seller for a scan of the registration certificate and other photos, e.g. of the interior, the engine of the car and another view of the exterior. Be sceptical of excuses that this is not possible!
  • A deposit is required as security. This should be made by non-traceable means of payment such as a bank transfer. Do not pay by bank transfer!

If an own webshop exists:

  • Check imprint and contact details - are the mandatory details of company name, company address, email address and telephone number fulfilled in the EU?
  • View address details e.g. in Google Maps with Streetview. Is the company really present at this location, or is it a residential building, a letterbox company or an empty lot somewhere in the industrial zone?
  • Enter the name of the company in Google with the search term "fake" or "review" etc. to see testimonials.
  • Check whether the website was set up recently. The creation date of the domain can be found on whois.com.
  • To appear legitimate, misuse or fabricate details of an actual company, such as address details, trade register entry or a similar looking email address. Try contacting the company through a different channel than the one provided to you originally.

If the offer is from an established online marketplace:

  • Check if the seller has already made other sales with real customers or if it is a first sale. 
  • Fraudsters try to move the communication to initiate payments away from the messaging function of the marketplace e.g. via social media like WhatsApp, phone calls or via a disposable email account to be untraceable.

If you receive documents or further invoices

  • As soon as an initial down payment has been made, further payments are often demanded for flimsy reasons, e.g. because unexpected official requirements for import or problems with an allegedly commissioned transport company have arisen. You should be alarmed at this point at the latest!
  • If you get a Chamber of Commerce certificate or similar, you can try to check its authenticity. Many countries offer free online access to these statements. Fraudsters clone companies and the entry often only differs from the real company in details, e.g. in the description of the activity or in the form of distribution. 
  • In some cases, certificates or official stamps are only clumsily forged. If you are unsure, you can ask us for information.

If you have already been cheated, immediately if possible:

  • File a complaint with the police so that they can investigate effectively.
  • Contact the bank and attempt a chargeback. However, this only works if the transfer has not yet gone through or the money has not yet been resolved at the recipient bank.


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