Car scams: Buying new and used cars

Article Hugo Griffiths
Feb 23, 2016

Car scams are rare, but being aware of the tricks of the trade will help you spot and avoid unscrupulous practices.

UK car buyers are generally well protected against dodgy deals, particularly when buying a new car. Nonetheless, before it closed in 2014, the Office of Fair Trading estimated that consumers were being scammed out of around £3 million a year when buying cars. Our guide will help you steer clear of potential pitfalls.

Car scams online

While buying a car online has become safer and more reputable over the years, it's still possible to get stung. Some fraudsters use classified ads to sell cars that don’t exist. Making sure you view and inspect any car in the metal should help you avoid this particular scam.

Cars offered at well below their typical market value often have a hidden history or undisclosed problems. It's easy to determine how much a new or used car is worth, and few dealers make money by selling cars for significantly less than they typically go for: be sceptical of cars that seem unusually great value.

Companies with landline telephone numbers and professional e-mail addresses are more likely to be trustworthy – although there's no substitute for visiting a dealer you’ve found online to suss it out before buying.

Background and mechanical checks

Regardless of whether you’re buying a new car from a franchised dealer or a used car from a private individual, you should get a car background check from a company like HPI, the AA or the RAC. It costs less than a takeaway meal, yet will reveal whether a car has outstanding finance or has ever been stolen or written off. Many dealers run a background check on all their cars as standard practice; if they’ve done this, a quick call to the checking company to confirm the details in the report is a sensible idea. Our guide to HPI checks has more.

If you’re buying an older secondhand car – particularly one being sold without a warranty – a full mechanical check can be worthwhile. While these cost upwards of £100 and require the seller's co-operation, they can save you serious money. If a seller is unwilling to allow a mechanical check, this can be a warning sign that the car has issues.

Know the total cost of the car

Make sure you have a good idea of what a car is worth, and don’t be fooled into paying more than this. If you’re buying a car on finance, don’t be tempted by a low interest rate on a deal that runs for a longer period of time. Make sure you know how much you want to pay for a car overall and calculate the full cost over the period of the agreement. Incremental increases in monthly repayments can be a sneaky way for less reputable dealers to hide a poor-value car, as buyers often forget to look at the outright cost, focusing instead on how affordable the repayments are.

Try to negotiate a discount

While some in-demand cars aren’t discounted, there's often a deal to be done on price, so be prepared to haggle. Keep an eye out for expensive extras like paint protection and interior stain-guard treatments. If the dealer tells you these are worth more than a couple of hundred pounds, take this with a pinch of salt.

A good rule of thumb is that if a car looks too good to be true, it usually is. With millions of cars sold in the UK each year, walking away from a sale shouldn’t give you any sleepless nights, and it's usually the sensible option if you’re unsure of anything.

Want to know more about getting a decent discount on your new or used car? Check out our car price negotiation tricks.

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