Most people will shy away from telling stories about falling for scams. Not me. I have no shame.
The single most important thing you can do when buying a car is to see the title before handing the seller any money. To prove it, let me tell you about something that actually happened to me. Before the armies of Reddit and YouTube descend on me, I’ll say that I have learned many valuable lessons from this situation. And yes, it was pretty stupid of me. Really stupid.
Here’s How to Avoid Getting Screwed Over on Craigslist
Or: The Fastest Way to Lose Money if You’re So Inclined
First, a little about me. I’m a regular tinkerer who usually has between 5 and 10 project cars at a time. Some call it dumb, others call it heaven, but it’s my vice and I’m sticking to it. That just goes to show I should have known better.
I came across a dirt-cheap late-model Audi on Craigslist. It needed some cosmetic work and the owner claimed to have lost the keys, but it was 75% cheaper than a normal example. I reasoned I could fix those problems on the cheap and reap a hearty profit. That should have been red flag #1: if it was really that easy the seller would’ve done it. But sometimes people throw in the towel, so that one’s forgivable.
My meeting with the seller went better than most dates I’ve been on. We talked for 45 minutes in front of his house, about life and a recent skiing accident which broke his arm and leg. He was in a wheelchair. He told me the Audi’s title was locked in the glovebox, and since the key was missing we couldn’t get it out. Unbeknownst to me, red flag #2 was hiding under a carefully crafted layer of BS.
I should mention that it’s possible to buy a car without a title, but if you planned on leaving with a title in hand it’s imperative that you do. If the story changes and suddenly there’s no title, that’s a big red flag – one that should never be ignored.
The World’s Best Bill of Sale
Stubbornly, I still wanted that Audi. I kept dreaming about all the rusty old piles of junk I could buy with the profits, so I came up with a great plan – or so I thought.
I’d write an iron-clad bill of sale asking for everything from the seller’s name to his social. It would require him to produce the title within 30 days if it wasn’t in the glovebox or the sale would be reversed. I’d take photos of him, his house, the car, and his driver’s license, so if anything went south I’d be armed to the teeth. And if he refused to fill this masterpiece out, that would be my sign to split.
Amazingly, he gave me everything I asked for – even his social! Feeling legally protected, I handed him the money. Not hundreds mind you… thousands. He took the money inside, we discussed arranging a tow for the next day, and that was the last time I saw or heard from him. Ever.
After he missed the towing appointment, I called the Highway Patrol and explained what happened. They ran the VIN and discovered the guy had sold the car to someone else right after selling it to me. But I had a bill of sale! Guess what the police did about that? Not sh*t.
I was on my own.
The Case of the Missing Seller
I thought getting my money back would be easy. I had the guy’s address, social, and even our text conversations. Hell, I knew his favorite kind of pizza. But proving what happened was the easy part.
Over the coming months I took off work at least ten times. I spent hundreds of dollars on court summons, appearances, and police-escorted visits to his house. The seller never appeared or contested in any way, but even with a defendant who completely rolled over the process was longer than an 80’s guitar solo. Every step gave him 30 or more days to comply, and when I finally got a judgement in my favor it didn’t actually require him to pay me. It simply said that a judge had found him liable for the debt, the legal equivalent of “Yup, that guy’s a dick.”
And who knows if he could even afford to pay me. By the time I figured out how to maybe collect what I was owed, my job had relocated me to another state. Like converting my Forester from auto to manual, the whole thing had become such a headache it wasn’t even worth finishing.
What I Should Have Done
I chalked the whole thing up to a few (expensive) lessons learned:
- Always keep your guard up
- See the title before handing over the money, and
- Even the world’s best bill of sale won’t prevent a load of trouble.
It’s worth mentioning that you should get a bill of sale with every vehicle you buy or sell – it was essential to my argument in court – but they don’t carry the legal power people think they do.
The most obvious thing is to never hand over the money until the title has been signed. This empowers the buyer as the one to make the last move. Cover your bases by running the VIN number before the process begins, and always remain skeptical of a stranger’s tales.
Ask People About the Area
People often said, “You bought a car in that town? Yeah, I could’ve warned you it would be a bad deal.”
When going to an unfamiliar place, you may not know where the “good” and “bad” sides of town are. Avoid a potentially dangerous situation by asking around before the deal goes down.
Before buying a car in another state or an unfamiliar area:
- Reach out to people you know there
- Ask people in your community
- Ask people in the place you're going
Above All, Trust Your Gut
Remember that, unfortunately, people are capable of just about anything. If something about a car doesn’t add up, if the seller’s story doesn’t hold water, or if you get a bad feeling about a deal for any reason, walk away. Even if it has nothing to do with the car, always trust your gut.
And the next time you buy a car on Craigslist, Facebook, or anywhere else, protect yourself by not making the mistakes I made. And yes, if anyone has a bridge in Brooklyn they’re looking to sell I would love to hear about it.
Author: Justin Dake