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Buyer beware when you shop for used cars online

KOMO photo

A new alert about buying cars online -- make sure you're dealing with a legitimate seller.

Thieves are placing ads that look legit but are not, and unless you investigate and pay attention, you might not know you've been taken advantage of until after your money is gone.

Jon Small spent two years searching online for the perfect RV.

"It was a 2002. It was in fairly good condition. It had low miles. And the price was right," said Small.

He found the RV on Craigslist. Small says the seller claimed to be a dealer.

"Oh, I'm a car dealer, but we're just showing it down at this parking lot," Small quoted the seller, who had Small meet in a grocery store parking lot.

Small says the RV checked out mechanically, and all the paperwork appeared to be in place. Everything looked legit.

He negotiated the price and the seller invited him to his home to close the deal. Small says he completed the transaction on the seller's dining room table.

"He had all his paperwork, just like a dealer would. Had all his title transfer paperwork, a purchase and sale agreement -- had all the keys."

Small paid with a check for $13,600, but later there was trouble with licensing. There was no title or license plates -- just a string of excuses.

Going through all the paperwork, Small was able to track down the original owner and discovered the man who sold the RV to Small had purchased it from the original owner on a private contract and never made payments. He also learned that the original owner was not legally authorized to sell the RV because he still had a loan from the bank. The bank still held the RV title and was not getting payments.

"I was duped, you know..."

Car experts at Edmunds.com say online car buying fraud is on the rise.

"People are seeing ads on legitimate used car shopping websites like Craigslist or carsforsale.com but the ads themselves are fraudulent," said Carroll Lachnit, Edmunds.com Consumer Advice Editor.

Edmunds gave KOMO News a screen grab of a fake website that someone designed to look like the real Edmunds.com.

But the web address is way too long- especially after the '.com' . What's more, the visuals are disjointed-- big red flags that you're about to get burned.

Lachnit says some fake ads steer you to a link that leads to a different site to collect payment. You should also be wary of sellers who won't provide complete contact information which you can verify. And be especially leery of anyone who wants you to use a wire transfer to pay for the vehicle.

Jon Small ended up buying another RV directly from a local dealer he was familiar with. The first RV he purchased is history.

"I used it for maybe 6 months, 7 months, and then they repoed it," he said.

The bank eventually repossessed the first RV he purchased, and he's out nearly $14,000.

Edmunds says in some cases - buyers who respond to fake used car ads not only lose their money but never get the vehicle- because the vehicles don't exist.

So before you buy a car online, verify the website -- look for suspicious web addresses, verify the vehicle history, scrutinize the ad, and when in doubt, contact the website independently to verify that the ad is legit.

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