Online scam

Mellanie Matos and her husband, Andersen Macena, were out $6,000 after buying a van that needed thousands of dollars of transmission work. She was going to use it to start a mobile dog grooming business.

Larry Hoover has bought a lot of cars — sight unseen — off the eBay auction website over the years and never had a major problem.

“It never crossed my mind that they would try to defraud me,” he said.

And then the Phoenix-area resident made a deal with a South Florida used car dealership that advertised a 2002 Cadillac El Dorado as being in perfect mechanical condition. The dealer persuaded Hoover to wire the $6,500 purchase price directly to him so he could avoid seller fees charged by eBay and PayPal.

Now, Hoover has a major problem. He has no El Dorado and no $6,500. And he has no buyer’s protection from eBay.

“It’s made me very gun shy about buying a car online,” he said.

Experts say all consumers should be gun shy about online vehicle purchases.

Online vehicle scams are flourishing in the age of COVID-19, according to a recent study by the Better Business Bureau, and authorities have tracked complaints to dealers in South Florida.

Investigators have identified two primary types of online car sales scams.

One of the most common is orchestrated by criminals, typically tied to Romanian organized crime syndicates, who post fake car listings on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay Motors and other sites and persuade victims to wire money for cars, motorcycles, ATVs, RVs and boats that don’t exist.

The Better Business Bureau’s Southeast Florida and Caribbean division identified 39 companies that defrauded at least 69 victims out of $866,000 in 2020, according to a bureau study, “Virtual Vehicle Vendor Scams,” released last September.

Product not as listed

The other type of scam involves actual dealers who post listings that misrepresent vehicles as “pristine” or “in perfect running order.”

What the buyer receives is anything but perfect. They turn out to be rebuilt vehicles that have been in crashes, delivered in non-running condition, stripped of important components, sold with non-transferable titles or completely different from the ones pictured in listings. In several recent lawsuits filed in Broward County, Fla., out-of-state buyers described transactions with South Florida dealers that turned into nightmares:

• An Illinois man paid a Hollywood dealer $83,574 for a McLaren luxury car advertised on eBay as “in excellent mechanical condition.” When the car was delivered, he found the check-engine light illuminated, evidence of body work, different paint between the fenders, roof and front doors, frame damage, and ill-fitting doors.

• A New York man paid the same dealer $9,699 for a 2005 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class 500 Roadster also listed on eBay as “in excellent mechanical condition.” When it arrived, the trunk was stripped of all hardware, including the fasteners holding the taillights to the chassis. The retractable roof was stuck in the open position, and the dashboard video display did not work.

• A California man paid a different South Florida dealer $30,000 for a 2019 Ram van advertised on eBay as in excellent condition with 8,000 odometer miles. The title arrived branded as “salvage,” signifying it had been in a wreck, with a statement that the odometer did not display actual miles. The van was a former Amazon delivery vehicle sold at a salvage auction after being wrecked. A repair shop told the buyer it would cost $18,000 to make it roadworthy and safe.

All three buyers contacted the dealers and demanded refunds. The dealers refused, forcing the buyers to hire attorneys and sue for violations of Florida laws that prohibit misrepresenting the condition of vehicles.

No key, no car, no refund

At least those buyers got something for their money. Hoover said he was put through a runaround that left him with nothing.

Shortly after he sent $6,500 for the El Dorado, Hoover received the vehicle title in the mail that revealed “they got it from some police auction,” he said.

After the dealer failed to ship the car as promised, Hoover was told it could not be started because the dealer didn’t have a key to open the driver door. And no one would make the dealer a key because the title was sent to Hoover, the dealer told him. Hoover sent the title back and told the dealer to get it done. Weeks passed. Finally, after numerous phone calls and text messages, Hoover told the dealer to keep the car and the title and send him his money back. The dealer refused, and Hoover hired an attorney.

Hoover said the ordeal has left him angry for letting himself get scammed, but the loss hasn’t affected his ability to work or feed his family. And he still drives a Chevrolet Corvette that he bought from a Colorado dealership through eBay with no problem two years ago.

Mellanie Matos and her husband, Andersen Macena, weren’t so lucky. The couple moved from South Florida to the Panhandle town of Destin last year and started shopping for a van that Mellanie could use to start a mobile dog grooming business. They found one on Facebook Marketplace, advertised by a South Florida dealer. After purchasing it for $4,000, the couple discovered it needed $2,000 in transmission repairs. Then the dealer revealed he didn’t have a title for the van.

She asked for her money back. “He said I had to bring the van to him.” After they drove back to the dealership, “he asked for the key so he could drive it,” Matos said. “He never gave the key back.” And he hasn’t refunded their money, she says.

Now out $6,000, the couple is back living in South Florida, where Matos works in someone else’s grooming salon.

Follow these rules to avoid getting scammed

Attorneys who represent clients with car scam claims urge consumers to protect themselves by following a few simple rules:

--Never agree to send money for cars listed on eBay Motors outside of eBay and PayPal. “It’s common for them to list the vehicles on eBay but then persuade the buyer to circumvent eBay by wiring the payment directly,” said Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based attorney Matt McIsaac. But when buyers comply, they lose the right to seek refunds of up to $100,000 through eBay’s Vehicle Protection Program. Among other issues, eBay’s program will cover vehicles that never arrive; have undisclosed liens against a title; have titles that weren’t disclosed as salvage, rebuilt, junk, or flood damaged; or whose odometers were misrepresented by 5,000 miles or more. Vehicles less than 10 years old are covered for undisclosed damage to the engine, transmission or frame when repair costs exceed $1,000 for each component.

--If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid listings of late-model cars with preposterously low prices.

--Don’t rely on the accuracy of a vehicle history report such as Carfax or Auto Check that many dealers provide as a so-called free service, said Josh Feygin, a Hollywood-based attorney who specializes in claims against dealerships. Information in those reports can be inaccurate or may not include recent wrecks, he said.

--Investigate the dealer’s online presence and look for reviews. Don’t accept a 100% positive rating on eBay; that could reflect ratings from other eBay merchants who sold the dealer tools or parts. Go to Yelp, Better Business Bureau, and similar sites and look for bad reviews. “Anyone can buy good reviews,” Feygin said. Detailed negative reviews that tell similar tales are the most reliable. If a dealer has little or no presence online, that could mean the company has recently changed its name to disassociate itself from multiple negative reviews.”

--Spend some money to have the vehicle inspected if you can’t see it personally. Such services can easily be found with an online search for “independent vehicle inspection services” and the city where the vehicle is located. Alternatively, an independent repair shop or dealership that sells the same make and model will likely be able to do the job. Obviously, don’t allow the seller to arrange the inspection. Have the inspection report delivered to you. If a seller makes excuses for why a vehicle can’t be made available for an inspection, immediately cease contact with that seller.

--Demand to see the title. You’ll be able to determine the previous owner, mileage when last sold, and whether the title is branded as salvage or rebuilt. A salvage designation typically means the vehicle has been in a wreck and sustained damage that an insurer determined would cost more than 80% of the vehicle’s market value to repair. If a dealer sells a car with a salvage title, that means they failed to make the necessary repairs to get the title rebranded as rebuilt. The seller should have no legitimate reason not to let you inspect the title. Have the seller take digital photos of the front and back of the title, along with a photo of the vehicle’s VIN number. Make sure they match.

Excitement clouds common sense

While these rules might seem like common sense, it’s easy to forget them when you become excited about that perfect vehicle. That’s the mistake Mellanie Matos made when she found the van she wanted for her mobile grooming business.

“I think I acted too fast,” she said. “I didn’t look at reviews so I didn’t know what type of business I was going to when I bought the vehicle. When you get excited, your brain blocks your critical thinking.”

Larry Hoover, meanwhile, says he’ll approach any future online purchases with a healthy paranoia.

“I always thought I’d never fall for a scam,” he said. “No matter how safe you might think the transaction is, or how fraud-savvy you think you are, you can still get scammed.”

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