By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/15/2010 7:39:19 AM ET 2010-07-15T11:39:19

Attention car shoppers! Cyber-thieves are now in the online auto business. Their bogus websites offer unbelievable deals – prices that are way below market value – on repossessed vehicles. Their slogan: “Stop searching and start saving.”

These scam sites look completely legitimate, with pictures and descriptions of the cars and trucks for sale. Most have fake certification seals. The “CarFax Certified Dealer” symbol says “Buy here with confidence.”  It’s bogus. CarFax does not certify dealers.

People who take the bait are told to wire off a sizeable deposit, as much as $5,000, for a vehicle they will never get.

Walter Dworschak of Corona, Calif., landed on one of these fake sites and found a Ford F-150 pickup truck for sale at a great price. Dworschak was instructed to wire the $2,800 deposit. He’d pay the balance when the truck arrived in five to seven days.

But the truck never came. When he called the dealership – the real dealership – Dworschak was told he’d been scammed.

“I feel like I was used,” he says. “It was such a good deal and I needed a vehicle and I got taken like a fool.”

A deviously clever scam
If the prices seem “too good to be true,” why don’t people do their homework before they send off their money? They do. Dworschak checked, and the auto company named on the bad guy’s site was legitimate. In fact, it had the Better Business Bureau’s highest rating.

How can that be? It’s pure deception. The bad guys create their phony websites using the name and address of a real auto dealer. The trick is to use the name of a real company, but a different web address, something most people would not notice or question.

“They’ve basically stolen the identity and good name of that reputable dealer,” says Alison Southwick with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “If you come across their website online and you decide to do some research, the bogus dealer is going to check out because the realdealer can be trusted.”

The Better Business Bureau, which just issued an alert about this scam, is hearing from victims all across the country.

Mike Stahley, who lives near Lansing, Mich., is an unemployed auto worker. He decided to spend part of his 2009 tax refund to replace his old car. Stahley tells me he looked all over the Web for a deal. When he searched “repo cars,” a couple of sites came up, including American Auto Sales in Memphis.

He found a car with a Blue Book value of $17,000 that was going for just $7,700. Stahley was skeptical, so he made a few calls and the dealer checked out. He e-mailed the company, said he wanted to buy the car and was told to wire a $3,000 deposit.

“I thought it was a bit odd that they don’t take Visa or MasterCard, but I figured maybe they didn’t want to pay the percentage to the credit card company,” Stahley explains. “Since everything came back that it was a legitimate business, I wired them the money.”

Within 15 minutes he got an e-mail confirmation that the money was received and they car would be shipped in a few days. But the car never came. When Stahley went back online, the website was gone.

“It was just before Father’s Day when all this went down and I’m still terribly angry over the whole situation. I’m feeling financially raped and still terribly embarrassed about it. I didn’t have $3,000 to throw away.”

American Auto Sales, the real car dealership in Memphis whose identity was stolen, has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. The company’s web address is memphisautoworld.com. The con artists chose americautosales.com for their URL.

Micah Guidry, a salesman at American Auto Sales, says the scam went on for about a week and half before they were able to get the bogus site taken down.

One person showed up at the dealership looking for his car. More than a thousand others have called. Guidry says most of them had sent sizeable deposits to the scammers.

Who’s running this scam?
To find out, I contacted the person who runs the blog Internet Scammers. (For security reasons, he did not want me to use his name.) He says a group of crooks in Romania are responsible for about 40 malicious websites. All have been taken down. Each was made to look like a legitimate car dealer that already had a presence on the Internet. Past URL’s include: superautosales.com, reliableusedcarsinc.com and heavensentusedcars.com.

“This is pretty lucrative for them,” the blogger says. “They’re making a lot of money.”

Let’s say most of the 1,000 people who contacted American Auto Sales in Memphis paid the scammers $3,000, it means those Romanian swindlers took in several million dollars from that one bogus site in less than two weeks.

The Better Business Bureau says this gang of thieves has posed as car dealers in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico and Texas. The sites are often shut off days after they go up, only to reappear with the name of another legitimate dealer.

The warning signs
Nancy Crawford, director of marketing and communications at the Better Business Bureau in Memphis, was able to get onto the bogus American Auto Sales site before it was taken off line. She wanted to see how they operated.

She found there was no way to talk to anyone by phone. When she called the number on the site, she got a recorded message that directed her back to the site. The only way to communicate was via e-mail or online chat.

Crawford asked to see a car she wanted to buy. She was told that was not possible. But the chat operator said once the deposit was received and the car was delivered Crawford would have three days to inspect it. If she didn’t like it, the company would pick it up and take it back.

“Now how realistic does that sound?” Crawford asks. “How much is it going to cost a company to ship you a car and then ship it back if you don’t like it?”

Crawford was told her deposit would be wired to an individual supposedly working at the dealership and not to the company. Why? The chat operator said that would allow the company to “legally avoid paying taxes.” Now there’s an honest dealer for you!

The Better Business Bureau says look for these red flags when shopping for a car online:

  • The prices are too good to be true.
  • The dealer only communicates through chat or e-mail, never by phone.
  • The dealer only accepts payment by money wire transfer. That’s always a risky way to do business with an unknown company.

If you’ve been taken by a fraudulent auto website, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the federal government’s Internet Crime Center.

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