CRAIGSLIST: How to buy and sell cars online without being scammed

Buy and Sell Cars on Craigslist Without Being Scammed: Your Complete Guide

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Looking to buy a used car? When you are looking for a good price on a used car, you might just find a sweet ride on Craigslist used cars listings.

Similarly, if you’re looking to sell your used car, you can use Craigslist or eBay. Craigslist cars for sale by owner tend to fetch better prices than you might get from working through a dealer. 

Craigslist is arguably the biggest worldwide online marketplace that connects buyers with sellers. However, criminals will often find ways to ruin something great, and in recent years, the platform has had its fair share of scams perpetrated by both “buyers” and “sellers”.

Since almost every working adult and most families rely on a car to get from point A to point B, we at Nationwide Auto Transportation understand just how special your vehicle is to you. In this guide, we will look at the various elements of buying and selling cars and trucks on Craigslist without getting scammed.

What are Craigslist Scams?

Most of us have used Craigslist for whatever reason – from looking through personal ads to browsing real estate, finding jobs, buying used furniture, or even concert tickets. It’s a fantastic place for communities to connect, and if you believe one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, you’re bound to find some great deals! Unfortunately, since it is such a community-oriented place, people tend to trust one another relatively easily. That means that crooks use the platform to profit on other people’s naivete. 

There are a few standard indicators of a scam, including:

  • Offers that sound too good to be true.
  • Poor grammar and spelling in job posts. 
  • Anyone demanding that you wire the money to them (or uses Moneygram or Western Union).
  • The money must be wired to a different country.
  • The buyer or seller is in a big rush to conclude the transaction.
  • There’s no phone number in the advertisement.
  • The seller claims to be overseas in the military, or working overseas.

Common scams on Craigslist include elaborate phishing scams whereby people offer incredibly well-paying jobs for simple tasks, just to get you to part with account information. The rental scam involves scammers posing as homeowners who are unable to meet in person, but require money wired to them to secure your rental. Once paid, you will never hear from them again. The cell phone scam can leave a dent in your phone bill. If you’re selling something, a “buyer” will respond that he or she is very interested, but is unable to talk at the moment, and request that you provide your number using a website that stores information for them. This is actually a prescription service that will charge your credit card monthly, with no way to cancel it. 

The over-payment scam is one of the many car-related scams on Craigslist. If you are selling a car on Craigslist, beware of people who are desperately interested, and who pay by check. Most people prefer to pay by check if they’re buying a car from out of state, but if you don’t do your research, you can easily be scammed. Someone might offer to pay you in full by check for the car before you’ve even shipped (this shows just how “honest” the individual is, and you believe them. However, once check arrives, you notice that they paid you significantly more than what was due. Being a nice person, you refund them the balance, just or the check to bounce. And by then, the culprit has long disappeared.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Car Scams to Avoid on Craigslist

While some version of the above scams can be perpetuated when you buy or sell a car or Craigslist, most car-related scams involve:

Dealers posing ads on Craigslist used cars for sale by owner. 

When dealers sell cars while posing as private sellers, they don’t have to comply with Federal Trade Commission rules. The FTC requires that dealers post a Buyers Guide in every car they have on sale. However, since the Buyers Guide includes information about the car – such as whether it is being sold ‘as is’ or covered by a warranty, the percentage of repair costs payable by the dealer under warranty, any major electrical or mechanical systems on the car and problems to be aware of – they prefer not to to that. It makes more sense for them to sell the cars posing as private owners. 

Private sales typically involve none of the implied warranties covered by Used Car Rules or state law. In most cases, a private sale is “as is”. In most cases, buyers don’t find out that they were sold a car by a dealership until the dealer has the car registered on your behalf.

People selling cars they don’t own.

If the car for sale on Craigslist doesn’t belong to the person who is selling it, or if the seller does not have permission to sell it, you may be implicated in a crime. 

Or criminals paying for cars using stolen or counterfeit checks.

If someone buys a car from you with fake money, you can forget about every seeing the money or the car again, as they probably used fake names and burner phones as well. 

How to Buy or Sell a Used Car on Craigslist 

By knowing the common scams around, or simply the ways in which criminals operate, you can avoid these inconveniences more easily. Although the site is being abused by many scammers, it is still a great place to go for buying and selling cars online. So next time you want to buy or sell a car on Craigslist, follow these simple guidelines to avoid being scammed. 

Assume everyone’s a con artist 

In most cases, vehicle fraud on Craigslist is committed by con-artists impersonating private sellers. From selling salvaged cars without disclosing damage, to selling stolen cars with fake paperwork, tampered odometers and more, you can never be too careful. 

As criminals become more sophisticated (practice makes perfect!), legitimate buyers and sellers will be patient as you sift through the throngs in search of a decent deal.

Look for proper communication and grammar

If the advert and emails or texts between you and the “buyer” or “seller” contain lots of grammatical errors, or if they fail to answer your questions and the messages do not flow throughout the conversation, you’re probably receiving canned responses. Criminals from well-known scam locations overseas use the platform to have money wired to untraceable accounts. 

Always ask for a phone number so that you can call and ensure you’re speaking to a real person. 

Whether you’re buying or selling, you want to know that the person on the other side will put a bit of effort into the communications. 

Know your state emissions laws

Depending on where you live or where the car is, the seller must provide proof that the vehicle passes emissions, and in others, the buyer has to provide it. A vehicle that does not pass emissions costs a lot to fix. Save yourself the time and money by understanding the law and lining up the facts before you become too interested in a car.

Know what you’re looking for

With so many hundreds of brands, models and colors available, it’s important to consider what you’re actually looking for in a car. Of course, your personal preference will play an important role in your decision. 

If you’ve driven a certain car for a while, you might know a thing or two about them. Is this brand fuel efficient? Do they have a common problem? 

Ask for clear, good pictures and information

If you want to sell a used car on Craigslist, you’ll have much more success by posting clear pictures and as much information as possible. Vague information and unclear pictures make you look shady. Consider what you would like to see in car for sale ads and include as a minimum:

  • Car make and model
  • Miles on the clock
  • Condition – be honest about whether it is running or not, whether it has been in an accident, or whether it needs any repairs. If it doesn’t run, you might have to have it towed or shipped.
  • Service history
  • Location
  • Asking price
  • Phone number and email

As a buyer, look for Craigslist used cars advertisements with all of the above. As for the pictures, they may not represent the actual car you’re hoping to buy. Therefore, you should still arrange to see it in person. 

If you can’t view the car in person, because it’s in another state, consider sending someone you know to take it for a test drive. Better yet, ask a mechanic in the area to check it out and ensure everything is fine under the hood. 

Sign up for CARFAX and run a report

Do you like what you see so far? Then run a VIN check through CARFAX. Instead of paying for each individual check, sign up for the unlimited plan. 

Don’t waste your time doing further inquiries if the title is not clean. If there are signs of mileage tampering or an unclean title, walk away – no matter how sweet the deal.

Find out why they are selling the car

In many cases, people have valid reasons for selling used cars on Craigslist. Perhaps they’re having a baby, and a sports car doesn’t offer safe seating. Perhaps they are getting a divorce or moving overseas. Those are all valid reasons. 

However, if they tell you an elaborate sob story, run! It’s no secret that the more interesting the story, the bigger the con. 

The same goes for buyers who try to elicit sympathy in one way or another. 

Know the asking price!

When you see an advert listing a car on Craigslist (or any item anywhere else) listed with a price tag of $1, or $123, or $777, that’s probably a placeholder tag, which means they are open to bids. There’s no way someone will sell you a car for $1. 

When you see a car priced at a ridiculously low price, be sure to find out exactly how much they want, and do your homework – find out what it is actually worth. Visit Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book to find out  what the car is actually worth based on the make, model, condition and area where you live. Knowing the actual value is key to ensuring that both the buyer and seller agree to a fair price. 

As the buyer, don’t expect a discount for every scratch or dent. If you want a perfect car, it’s best to buy one from a dealership. 

You might ask: How much should you pay for a used car on Craigslist?

Well, that obviously depends on a range of factors, starting with what it’s worth. Typically, a reasonable deal ranges from about $1,500-$4,000. Of course, not everyone has that amount of cash lying around. Consider how much you want to pay for a used car, and save up the money before you start looking at adverts. 

Meet in person (and bring a friend!)

If you are meeting with anyone you found on Craigslist, or anywhere online, do so in broad daylight, at a busy location and bring a friend. You should both remain alert and together at all times. 

Avoid meeting someone at their home or in a deserted parking lot. Some people have made that mistake, and have not been seen again.

Buying locally makes it easier to see and test drive a car before you buy. Of course, this can be a challenge if you’re buying a collectors cars, since there’s no guarantee you will find one nearby. 

Take a test drive

Always test drive a car before you buy it. But first, request proof of insurance, registration and ID. However, don’t just jump in a car with a stranger – this goes for buyers and sellers alike. Make sure the documentation matches. You could say that your insurer insisted that you request the information.

If the person won’t provide the requested information, simply leave. There could be a valid enough reason why the information doesn’t match, but feel free to ask the reason. 

During your test drive, be sure to include:

  • Stop-and go-driving
  • Highway driving
  • Checking the functions and features
  • Heater and aircon function
  • Locks and windows
  • And four-wheel drive.

A thorough test drive takes a good twenty minutes.

If you’re test driving a 4WD vehicle, go to a dry parking lot and put the vehicle in 4-HI. Slowly drive forward, cranking the steering wheel as far as possible left and right. You should feel a slight lurching as you turn and if the 4×4 is engaged. If you don’t feel the lurch, repeat this process in 4-LO. Some vehicles have to have hubs turned to activate 4WD, otherwise, there might be a problem with the vehicle.


At the same time, perform a thorough pre-purchase vehicle inspection to avoid buying a lemon.

Request all the appropriate paperwork

When you buy from a dealership, they will do the change of ownership registration. However, if you buy Craigslist used cars for sale by owner, you will have to change the registration to your name. For that, you need to previous owner to sign the title over to you. 

Without the title, you can expect plenty of trouble in the future. Don’t buy the car unless the seller can produce:

The title – A document of ownership the seller must sign and hand over to the buyer on conclusion of the transaction. 

Proof of emissions – The state law will determine whether the seller must provide this, or whether buyer must do it.

Maintenance records – Scheduled maintenance can help increase both the value and the reliability of the vehicle. Your mechanic or dealership might have a copy of the records if you don’t. 

Bill of sale – This document details the terms and conditions of the sale. It may be used in future in the event a dispute. If there’s an accident or event that occurs before the car is registered to the new owner, it could lead to disputes.

Release of liability – As with the bill of sale, the release of liability safeguards the seller against damages that occur after the vehicle is sold and before it is transferred into the buyer’s name.

Warranty documents – The new owner will want these documents if the car is still under the manufacturer’s warranty or any other extended warranty. 

And As-is documentation – If the warranties have expired, the seller must let the buyer know that the new owner is responsible for any damages or repairs upon conclusion of the transaction. If this information is included in the bill of sale, a separate document will not be necessary.

Don’t rush into a deal

The biggest car-buying or selling mistakes happen when people rush into deals. Even if you’re one-hundred percent convinced that this is the perfect car for you and the price is right, sleep on it. 

Don’t allow the seller to pressure you into making fast deals. The seller might push you to act immediately to avoid missing out on a great deal, but you cannot afford acting irrationally.

Yes, you run the risk of losing out on a deal, but you might also save yourself from overpaying or buying a car you shouldn’t. 

Avoid handing over cash or providing any information you might regret later on. 

Always pay in cash

If there’s one hard and fast rule everyone – buyers and sellers alike – should follow on Craigslist, it is to NEVER, EVER wire money or ask someone to wire money. 

In most cases, sellers will ask for cash if you meet in person. You might have to leave the car with them so that they can register it in your name and to get new plates. However, be sure to get the keys. 

In the case of a higher value car, it may not be practical to pay in cash. In that case, they may request a certified check. While a personal check is cashed upon it being presented at the bank, a certified check is cashed when it is printed. As a seller, be careful, because sophisticated forgers can create genuine-looking imitations. You may only know that it is fake when you deposit it. 

The best way to accept a certified check is to meet the buyer at the bank, and watch as the certified check is issued in front of you. You might even be provided with some space in which you can sign over the paperwork. 

As the buyer, you may prefer to pay in cash. However, it may not be safe to arrive at the seller’s house with a pile of cash. Instead, meet the seller at the bank. You can pay them the cash right at the counter once they have provided a title for the car in their name, along with a bill of sale, depending on your state’s laws.

Need to transport the car from out of state to your home? Look no further than Nationwide Auto Transportation for the best deals on vehicle shipping.