Online scammers are bilking car shoppers with fraudulent vehicle sales and false vehicle protection claims, according to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

In the vehicle fraud scam, the crooks try to sell cars that they don't own, the complaint center said in an intelligence note. They bait marks by offering vehicles at prices below book value under the pretense that they need to sell the auto quickly because they're being relocated for work or military reasons.

Because of the urgency of the move, the scammers refuse to meet the buyer or allow them to inspect the vehicle. To dress the transaction as legitimate, the fraudsters ask their victims to send a full or partial payment to a third party via a wire transfer payment service and then fax a receipt of payment to them. Once the money is transferred, the seller disappears and the vehicle is never delivered.

The complaint center noted that the criminals add another veneer of legitimacy to the transaction by claiming it's being conducted under the umbrella of a bona fide purchasing program.

"For example," the complaint center explained, "the eBay Motors Vehicle Protection Plan is a reputable protection program whose name is commonly misused by these criminals. However, the VPP is not applicable to transactions that originate outside of eBay Motors, and it prohibits wire transfer payments. "

The scammers even use Internet chat to soften a target's resistance to the sale, the center said. As live chat assistants, the fraudsters answer questions about the vehicle and assure their targets that the transaction is secure. Transactions are perfectly safe, they claim, and covered by liability insurance up to $50,000.

Auto buyers should exercise caution when purchasing vehicles online, the center warns, especially when confronted with the following situations:

  • Sellers who want to move the transaction from one platform to another (for example, Craigslist to eBay Motors).
  • Sellers who claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company's site.
  • Sellers who push for speedy completion of the transaction and request payments via quick wire transfer payment systems.
  • Sellers who refuse to meet in person, or refuse to allow the buyer to physically inspect the vehicle before the purchase.
  • Transactions where the seller and vehicle are in different locations. Criminals often claim to have been transferred for work reasons, deployed by the military, or moved because of a family circumstance, and could not take the vehicle with them.
  • Vehicles advertised at well below their market value. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Consumers who witnessed an auto scam or fallen victim to one are encouraged to file a complaint with the complaint center.

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and [email protected] on Twitter.