Warning over car scam

Toy car

Thousands of people are falling victim to a car-matching scam that costs consumers nearly £3 million each year.

The problem is so widespread that the police, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and Trading Standards have issued a warning to consumers, urging them to be on their guard.

The car-matching scam targets people selling their vehicles, normally by advertising in newspapers or online. Conmen approach them with an offer to find them a definite buyer, in return for an upfront matcher’s fee of around £100.

However, in the majority of cases, the seller pays the money only for their matcher to vanish or fail to produce a buyer. The OFT says people are unable to get their money back, because the contract with the matcher cannot be cancelled or because they cannot be found.

Last year, it received 1,600 complaints relating to car-matching scams, but the true number of victims is believed to be significantly higher, with many people too embarrassed or busy to follow-up the issue.

Peter Stratton, motor trade lead officer at Trading Standard, explains: “High pressure selling alongside cold-calling makes this a very successful scam, often leaving the consumer with very little chance of obtaining redress. Partners are working together to help educate and protect consumers in respect of these rogues.”

To help stamp out the practice, the OFT is working with motoring publications and websites that are members of the Vehicle Safe Trading Advisory Group - including Autotrader, Exchange and Mart, eBay and Motors.co.uk  - to ensure prominent warnings are put in place highlighting these scams.

Enforcement action has already been successfully taken against several of these scams, including one prosecution. Other firms operating car-matching services have been compulsory wound-up or had their consumer credit licence removed.

While the scam is happening across the UK, there appears to be a concentration of cases around North London and Hertfordshire. People who have fallen foul of car-matching services, or have been contacted while selling a vehicle by a matcher, are urged to report this to Consumer Direct via its website or on 08454 04 05 06.

As a general rule, never give out your credit or debit card details to a person or firm that you don’t know – especially if they cold-call you. It’s also worth being sceptical about the service or products they are offering you.

While it may be hard to find a buyer for a second-hand car in the current climate, don’t be tempted by their promises of an immediate buyer with the finances in place to pay. You may also be told that you can get a refund if the car doesn’t sell, but in the case of these scams, this is unlikely to be true.

Earlier this month, the OFT launched a market study into the sale of second-hand cars following a spate of complaints from consumers. More than 68,000 consumers contacted Consumer Direct last year about second-hand car sales, with concerns centering around defective vehicles, services and potentially misleading selling.

Second-hand car sales totalled £35 billion in 2008. John Fingleton, chief executive of the OFT, says: “Buying a second-hand car is a major and potentially difficult purchase, given the fact that many consumers lack the necessary experience or knowledge to make an informed buying decision.”