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Six people were arrested over a virtual vehicle scam in South Yorkshire earlier this week (at the time of writing). The alleged scammers falsely claimed to sell cars at reduced prices online. Victims made online money transfers to the “sellers” who then disappeared with the money. As a result, the victims were left out of pocket and without a car. 

The group targeted hundreds of people all over the UK, attempting to “sell” non-existent reduced-price cars.

Online scams of this nature are on the rise. But what can you do to spot an online car-selling scam? And how can you protect yourself? 

Let’s take a look. 

How exactly does the virtual vehicle scam work?

While the scam in this example happened on eBay, any online selling platform that offers car sales could be used in this model. 

Scammers often copy a genuine car advert, stealing the photos and information within the ad. They then change the price, often using below-average rates to entice buyers. The price quoted will often seem like a decent deal, but won’t be so outrageously low as to arouse suspicion. 

When people approach the scammers about the car, they’re told they must put down a “deposit” to collect it. If clients are interested in buying the car, they might then transfer the requested amount to the scammer. 

Then, the scammer typically provides an address for the buyer to collect the car. But, this is often just a random address that has no connection to the scammer whatsoever. By the time the buyer realises it’s a scam, it’s too late – the money has been transferred to the scammer and may be lost forever. 

Scam warning signs

What are the top warning signs to look out for?

The biggest red flag in situations like these is the fact that the scammer will try to sell you the car without letting you see it first.

They’ll be evasive when you ask to see the car and might even ask for a deposit. They might claim they’ve had plenty of interest and put pressure on you to buy it before it’s sold. 

But, no matter how good the deal seems, alarm bells should start ringing if you’re not allowed to see the car first. 

This advice was echoed by Detective Chief Inspector Anna Sedgwick who led the operation which lead to the arrest of the scammers operating from South Yorkshire. She added: “My advice would be to never, ever transfer any money to anyone, no matter how pleasant or legitimate they seem, without having physically seen the car first. 

“We have seen reports of this scam grow significantly in recent years, and therefore it’s really important buyers take extra steps to check the seller is legitimate before handing over any cash or personal information.” 

If you feel like the situation is “off”, you could try reverse-image searching the pictures in the ad. This will pull up results where the same images have been used. Chances are, if it’s a scam, you’ll find the car on sale elsewhere, at a higher price. That’s because scammers often copy legit ads. 

But, even if you can’t find the original ad, if you’re told you can’t see the car before you buy it, you should say no. On the off chance that this isn’t a scam, why risk buying a car that might not fit the online description at all? 

To sum up, here are the top warning signs to look out for: 

  • The car seems great, has no obvious flaws, but is a good deal cheaper than other similar cars. 
  • The seller refuses to let you see the car in person. 
  • The seller tries to pressure you to put down a deposit to “secure” the car. 
  • When you do a reverse-image search, you find an identical ad with a different price tag. 

If a situation seems too good to be true – it probably is. 

What should you do if you suspect you’ve fallen for a virtual vehicle scam?

Car-related scams are more common than you think. From ghost brokers to  crash-for-cash scammers, to virtual vehicle scammers and fake NCD fake certificate sellers – there are so many criminals out there looking for ways to take your money. 

If you suspect you’ve fallen victim to a virtual vehicle scam, there are steps you can take to report the crime and hopefully recover your money. 

The National Crime Agency’s (NCA) National Economic Crime Centre’s advice is to report the scam at or call 0300 123 2040. 

Your report will be investigated and you’ll be able to follow its progress online. 

Unfortunately, virtual vehicle scams can be hard to investigate, due to the nature of the crime. The fraudsters involved might not even be located in the UK. But, reporting the scam is still your best course of action if you hope to get your money back.