Virtual vehicle scams on the rise in Charlotte area

Updated: Oct. 30, 2020 at 4:53 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte Mecklenburg Police and the Better Business Bureau are warning about virtual vehicle scams designed to take advantage of people during the pandemic who are desperate to get a deal on a new car or truck.

During the pandemic, scam artists are flooding sites like Craigslist with amazing deals and phony ads for cars and trucks designed to rip you off.

“We’d seen this type of activity prior to COVID, but it really took off during COVID because more people were buying their cars online,” said President of the Better Business Bureau Tom Bartholomy.

He says complaints are coming in coast to coast. The Charlotte BBB alone is getting three to four reports weekly of scammers posting cars for sale on sites like Craigslist, newspapers and other online bulletin boards. They generally come with a backstory for why the price is so low.

“Being deployed to Afghanistan - things like that where people would think, ‘oh wow I feel really bad for this person and wow what a great deal I’m going to get too,’” Bartholomy said.

Here’s where the hook comes in.

Scammers say they can’t show you the car because of COVID and the distance, so they propose using something like PayPal or eBay escrow. They want the buyer to put the funds in what they call “a safe escrow account” until the vehicle is delivered and accepted.

“You’re going to ‘deposit’ your money into this account thinking that it’s safe, thinking that it’s protected by eBay or Amazon or whomever. It’s just a phony name,” Bartholomy said.

In actuality, you’re not going to get the car or your money back.

That’s why CMPD Crime Prevention Specialist Officer Johnathan Frisk says, “You know sometimes where it might not be very convenient for us to do things as far as go out and physically see a car, I think that’s going to be our best practice.”

He says to always ask for the car’s vin or vehicle identification number. You can also google the picture you see in the ad. It could come up on other internet sites. And always check the escrow service.

“Go independently there to see how it operates,” said Bartholomy. “See how the flow of money goes and so when you go to do business with them and it doesn’t look like the eBay site or it doesn’t look like what you thought it would when you did your research, something’s up.”

Bartholomy says in most of these scams, the advertisements are being placed by individuals outside the United States.

In many cases, the ads trace back to Romania so it’s difficult for law enforcement to do anything about it.

“You just can’t take their story at face value, you’ve got to do that independent research,” Bartholomy said.

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