Buying a used car can be a daunting process, seemingly littered with pitfalls and trapdoors almost designed to catch out the unwary. But by the same token, getting it right can be hugely advantageous, with those in search of a bargain can often finding them while trawling the classifieds.
Nevertheless, leading vehicle data company HPI says there is a one in three chance of encountering some kind of hidden problem when buying a second-hand vehicle. It's no wonder, then, that motorists often feel unsure of how to navigate the buying process, and nobody wants to be ripped off when they're just trying to purchase their next pride and joy.
Barry Shorto, head of industry relations at HPI, commented: “Buying a used car can be stressful enough without having to worry about whether or not the seller is trying to rip you off. There are a wide variety of potential pitfalls facing used car buyers. It could be that the car is stolen or subject to outstanding finance or it may have been clocked at some point. Despite there being so many ways for buyers to be caught out there are also numerous ways to ensure they are prepared and protected.”
So HPI has created this list of scams for consumers to look out for next time they're in the hunt for a used car.
One of the simplest, best known and most common scams in the car market, clocking simply involves altering the mileage displayed on the car's odometer. These days, with the advent of digital odometers, it's often simply a matter of plugging in a laptop armed with the right software and changing the number on the dash. HPI says buyers should always go through the car’s service history and check the mileage for each year to see that it goes up steadily and that it doesn’t suddenly drop. The company also advises checking the mileage when you collect the car, to make sure it hasn't changed significantly since you last saw it.
This involves selling a stolen vehicle that has been given the identity of a similar, legitimate car. HPI says a cloned car probably won’t come with a V5C registration document, but if it does, make sure it's not a forgery. Suspicious consumers should contact the DVLA to check the authenticity of any paperwork.
Ringed cars are like cloned cars, in that they are stolen then given a new identity. The difference is that the stolen car assumes the identity of a car that has been written off. Selling a written-off car is suspicious in itself, but selling a written-off car isn’t illegal, whereas selling one that’s been stolen is.
To protect yourself against buying a ringer, HPI advises drivers to make sure the chassis number on the car matches the one on the V5C and look for evidence of the chassis plate having been tampered with. If you buy a ringed car you could lose it, along with your money, if the police catch you.
Cut and shut
Arguably the most dangerous scam of all, as well as one of the most notorious, HPI says it’s the only one that certainly involves selling a car in a seriously unsafe condition. It works by buying two cars, cutting them both in half, then welding those two halves together. The company says such cars have "no structural integrity" and would "literally fall apart" if they were involved in a crash. Avoid buying a cut-and-shut by looking closely in the door shuts, around the top of the windscreen, underneath the seats and across the underside of the car for signs of welding.
The hire car scam
This involves selling a hired vehicle. The key to avoiding this is to make all of the usual basic checks, including analysing the car’s V5C registration document. If that’s not to hand, walk away.
Fake escrow accounts
Escrow accounts allow buyers to deposit cash with a third party until a transaction has been completed, so both sides have some level of security. The scam involves the buyer depositing money in the account before the car vendor then disappears with the buyer’s money. Even though it looks professional, the escrow service is fake. Avoid this by checking to see if the escrow service is registered with Companies House. Check with Trading Standards, too.
This involves vendors putting buyers under pressure to leave an unnecessarily large deposit to secure a car, then scrapers with the money and he car. The best you can do to prevent this is to place a small deposit that shows you’re equally serious, and always get a receipt. There is still a danger of being ripped off but this is a good way to limit any potential losses.