Buying online: A cautionary tale

making a bringatrailer bid

I almost fell for it. Yep, I almost wired money to a less-than-honorable seller and stepped into what would have undoubtedly been a big mess. Thankfully, right before the money went out, that last step of due diligence I’ve preached so many times saved me.

And here, in short form, is the story–offered as another example of why we should never stop asking the right questions, especially when buying a car sight-unseen.

The car is unimportant, but for the sake of the tale it was an older convertible my dad found on Bring a Trailer, something he thought would be a fun, inexpensive summer car. He asked me to check it out for him, and if I approved, to bid on his behalf.

So I did all the due diligence I could: Ran a Carfax report, pored over the seller’s description and photos, and read all of the comments on BaT, paying particular attention to the seller’s responses. The seller said he’d owned the car for a year, had the title in his name (as required by BaT for all non-dealer transactions) and mentioned how he had another nearly identical car to show he was knowledgeable about this make and model. The convertible looked nice, just a clean old car that we expected to barely tip into five-figure territory. A harmless purchase if all checked out. And it certainly seemed to.

On the last day of the auction, strictly adhering to my dad’s bid limit, I bid on the car and won the auction. Immediately BaT sent contact info for the Seller, along with instructions that also were quite clear and indicate that BaT also stresses due diligence to the very end. Here, in part, are those tips:

Please review our Successful Transaction Tips below for the best ways to finalize your purchase.

  • Make contact with the seller ASAP.
  • Request a factual Bill of Sale and a photocopy of the title before making any payment.
  • Pay the full amount of the winning bid to the seller within 3 business days of the close of the auction.
  • We suggest Wire Transfers for payments.

I quickly emailed the seller, copying my dad and explaining that my dad would be the ultimate purchaser and could wire funds immediately upon getting the seller’s bank info, pickup location for the car, and seeing copies or photos of the front and back of the title. Once we had all of that I’d prepare a bill of sale. I wanted everything to be transparent and out in the open for all involved. The seller replied with a short email that twice referenced “cash is best” but he’d accept a wire and FedEx the title immediately upon the wire clearing. All standard stuff, of course, except he never sent copies or photos of the title. So we asked again. Finally, cropped photos of a title arrived.

Uh-oh.

bringatrailer.com
bringatrailer.com

What the seller sent, and tried to disguise, was a title in the previous owner’s name showing the seller had purchased the car two weeks prior to the auction. Clearly not a year or more of ownership, no matter how one reads a calendar. Not only was the seller attempting to “skip” or “jump” title (illegal for a number of reasons) he was also attempting to re-assign a title where his name was already filled in as “Purchaser,” meaning the title was non-negotiable to anybody but the seller, and he needed to go to the DMV, pay the sales tax, and get a title in his name.

This is where it gets good. When I inquired about this, and the misrepresentation on length of his ownership (which drew all of his other representations into question) the seller again swore he’d owned the car for over a year and that he only did the paperwork when he “decided to sell it.” But he hadn’t done the paperwork. Or paid the sales tax he owed. Or titled the car in his name.

Again I asked what I might be missing. Hadn’t he just purchased it on January 2nd 2018 as the title said? He replied that he had indeed owned the car for over a year, and that it had been part of a trade deal for another car with one of his very close circle of “car friends.”

I did what anybody looking for the truth would have done—I called the previous owner. After all, I had his name and address from the title. He was a very nice older gentleman who confirmed it had been his car and that he recently advertised its sale on Craigslist, just after the first of the year. As in 2018. A young man, he said, was first in line. Bought it for cash. And the young man’s name? Yep, it was the seller I was dealing with. I asked if he was a friend, or if he’d known him prior to this sale. “Nope. Never saw him before in my life. But I think he buys and sells a lot of cars.”

I went back to the Seller and explained I had just spoke to the fellow he bought the car from. That he hadn’t owned it for a year. Or even a month. That he didn’t have a negotiable title. His reply? That I was wrong. When I replied again stating I knew this wasn’t the case his next email was even better:

“I am going to let you in on the worst kept secret of the collector car hobby. We prefer sellers to present title exactly the way I presented the title to you. Not because of fees, we don’t care about that. It is because we don’t want to unnecessarily add owners to the official title. I have owned the Boxster for a lot longer than a year. I have driven and enjoyed it. I have insured it through Hagerty and it is a great Porsche. People that buy cars on Bat are generally collectors and know the deal. It sort of a sign of respect not to add another owner to a collector car when you know you are not going to keep it in your collection long term. I apologize for you not understanding the hobby and being new to this whole deal.” 

Clearly I wasn’t getting anywhere with the seller so I contacted BaT customer support. They immediately replied that the seller had stated on his listing application that he had owned the car for a year and that he held title in his name. They weren’t too happy about his misrepresentations either, and thanked me for bringing it to their attention, and stated:

“Feedback on sellers that handle facts in this way are what help us purge them from our system to keep the quality of transactions high [on BaT].” Which, of course, shows. It is a great community that does self-police extremely well, but when it doesn’t, BaT’s willingness to step in and help figure out a problem is priceless. In this case, after BaT reviewed the facts they informed us we were under no obligation to complete the transaction and that they had banned the seller from the site. In BaT’s words “lying about concrete facts in an attempt to sell cars here is something we do not tolerate.” Try to get that kind of support from eBay!

Lastly, one last fact check of another point in the seller’s story showed the car had never been insured by Hagerty. By him or anybody else.

The seller did eventually go to his local DMV and apply for title in his name, paying a late filing penalty in the process. But he wouldn’t have a title in his name for weeks, or longer, which meant he still couldn’t legally sell the car for some time. And given the fact that every question we asked was replied to with a more elaborate tale, we walked away from the deal. One red flag is enough, but this many? It would only be asking for trouble. I’ll let him sell it to somebody else.

When he has a title, that is.

If we had wired the seller the money the day after the auction had ended, he clearly couldn’t have FedExed us a good title as promised. By pressing to see the title before any money changed hands, we avoided the nightmare that would have become. And got a few laughs from the ensuing yarn he spun.

Once again, more proof that no matter how far you are into buying a car from somebody you don’t know, never let your guard down. And, just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with “flipping” a car as long as you follow the rules, title it in your name, and keep everything on the up and up. And, most importantly, tell the truth to any potential buyers and let the car, plus an accurate account of its condition and its history as you know it, speak for itself. It just makes things so much easier for everyone involved.