If the car ad sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s say you see the following:

1966 AC Cobra, recently rebuilt matching-numbers 260 V-8, excellent original condition, new tires. Too many cars! $10,000.
The chances of that being real are low, says Phong Ly, CEO and co-founder of iSeeCars.com. Based on an analysis of 50 million used cars for sale over 2.5 years, the website concluded that the likelihood that you’re dealing with a scam — a non-existent car, for instance, that's designed to get you in and buy something else — increases dramatically as the price goes down.

At a price greater than a $12,000 asking price, for instance, the chances of the ad being fake are only 0.3 percent. “You have a 10 times greater chance of being struck by lightning,” Ly said. But if you find what looks like a real bargain priced under $3,000, the chance of a scam jumps to 5 percent.

A Phoenix car lot in 1939.

A Phoenix car lot in 1939. Were dealers more honest back then? No way! (Photo: Don O'Brien/flickr)

A lot can be going on here. The car might have been flooded and it might have a salvage title. It might have been stolen and recovered. The photo might be borrowed from another dealership, and if you inquire about the car, you’ll be asked to wire transfer “a deposit.” And that’s the end of that — a simple twist on the Nigerian scam. That's exactly how the scammer in the video below operated, stealing photos from a dealer's website, posting them on Craigslist, then claiming to be out of the country and needing the money for, say, a $3,000 2013 Lexus coupe, wired to him overseas:

Ly said that iSeeCars.com began with a huge database, narrowed it down to cars priced well below the market, then inquired as to whether there was a legitimate reason for the low price. “If they claimed the car is great, there are no problems, or said something deceptive — like discouraging calls in favor of emails — then it’s suggestive of a scam,” Ly said.

iSeeCars.com offers the following tips to online car shoppers:

  • Check the vehicle history reports to make sure that the car wasn’t in an accident or had its odometer tampered with.
  • Call the dealer and make sure the advertised price is not a down payment or monthly amount.
  • Go to the dealership and check the car out yourself, and verify that the VIN on the listing sheet is the same as the one on the car.
  • Ask about an inspection by your own independent mechanic. If that’s discouraged, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate deal.
  • Be prepared to walk away if the whole thing doesn’t smell right. Never want any one car too much!

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

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