News Car Buying

One Way Scammers Use Money Apps and Broken Cars to Con Car Buyers

Used car ad scams are getting tougher to spot.
Kevin Williams, Facebook, Andrew P. Collins

I feel like I’ve always been on the up-and-up on the scam frontier. Whether it’s my writing here at The Drive, or elsewhere, I’ve always had a good nose for sniffing out bullshit. Except, this time, I’ve been had. Recently, I got conned out of money, all because of a broken Lexus ES. This might be a new budding scam, so let me explain how I was taken advantage of and maybe my folly can stop y’all from falling into the same trap I did.

Currently, my Fiat 500 Abarth and i-MiEV are both running smoothly. True, I’ve got a spare Honda CR-Z still in a state of disrepair, but last year I had five cars. I was itching to pull the trigger on another busted car to put some love into and maybe a couple of dollars along the way.

Enter this: A 2007 Lexus ES350, for a mere $1,300, listed on Facebook Marketplace. In the past, I’ve bragged about my ability to find deals right as they show up, and it seemed like I had lucked out again. This Lexus ES had only been listed 28 minutes prior. “Aw, shit, I’ve done it again,” I thought to myself, triumphantly.

The listing didn’t seem out of the ordinary. After all, this was a fifteen-year-old car with more than 180,000 miles, and a completely broken transmission, $1,300 seemed like a reasonable price. The ROI for this Lexus ES wasn’t the strongest. The six-speed auto, mated to the Toyota corporate 3.5-liter V6 must be a fragile or rare unit, because after a tiny bit of research I learned that an average-quality used unit was around $2,000. It took me some phone calls and sweet-talking to find a 127,000-mile replacement for a comparatively thrifty $1,700. After labor, and a bit of wiggle room for any other issues, tax, title, and registration, I had ballparked about a $4,500 investment. Kind of tight for a car with a $5,500-7,000 KBB street value, but doable.

The Lexus ES looked clean, but not unnervingly so. It looked as if it had been detailed by an amateur, but a good one. The interior looked pretty damn good for 180,000 miles, but not too good — an important detail that would bite me in the ass a little bit later.

Likewise, the seller was responsive. His description of the ES made sense; he claimed that he took the ES to a mechanic’s shop which diagnosed the ES with a bad transmission. A bit of Google-fu told me that these models are somewhat known for transmission issues, where they’ll slip or refuse to shift when cold.

It all seemed real. Still, I know that the used market and flip-car market is red hot right now. Everyone’s in search of new products to recondition, and a well-kept but broken Lexus would be a hot commodity. I guess another guy messaged after I did, bullish on the car, and he put a deposit down. But, the seller said he couldn’t get the vehicle for three more days, and was likely to offer less than asking. I did not want to lose the vehicle, so I offered to pay asking price and pick the car up the next day. I sent a $150 deposit via Zelle, the seller sent me the address of the car, and we set up a time for me to truck down and tow the car away.

It all made sense. It was a smooth, clear transaction. After I sent the deposit, the guy replied with the address where he said the car was located; a shop in the Cincinnati area, about 90-minutes from my house. I had planned a nice, cute day; I’d leave Columbus in the morning, and then take a gander at the car to make sure it would be worth my time, since it was parked at a repair shop. Then, I’d find a coffee shop to work on my writing until our meeting time.

En route, I figured I’d send a message to the seller, just to confirm we were still on for 6 o’clock.

“Message unable to send”, said Facebook Messenger.” Hm, maybe the service isn’t so good?”, I thought to myself. Still, I was about 30 minutes from the location, so I kept driving.

Eventually, I did make it to Cincinnati in the early afternoon, a little bit later than my mid-morning goal. I arrived at a suspiciously small repair shop, with not a hell of a lot of space for broken cars. I figured a broken Lexus ES350 would be pretty obviously parked out front, but not a single luxury sedan could be found amongst the machines. As I tried to contact the seller, my messages failed to go through. I clicked “view Facebook profile”, only for the profile to come back as “content not found,” signifying that I’d been blocked.

Oh lord. Hardheaded, and not ready to accept defeat, I walked into the repair shop’s reception area. “Maybe, the ES350 was owned by an old person who hated Facebook, and accidentally deactivated not realizing he can’t contact anyone without a profile,” I thought. That was a huge stretch, but I had already fallen in love with this ES. I wanted the car. I didn’t want to believe that I had been had.

“Oh, honey, we hadn’t had a Lexus ES come through those bay doors in a very long time,” said the lead service writer. They searched the name of the seller, including “his wife”, whose Zelle account I had deposited money into. Turned out there had in fact never been a Lexus ES350 in the shop, and no one had ever heard of the alleged owner of my scamster Lexus ES350.

It was time to admit that I had been scammed. Out of more than 35 different vehicles I’ve purchased broken, this is the very first time I had ever been scammed out of money. I sent the “seller” a deposit via Zelle, a bank-affiliated money-sharing app. Zelle money transactions are viewed “like cash” which means, I probably ain’t ever getting that money back.

I sat in my car, and laughed, tamping down the anger that boiling over inside of me. I tried to do some reconnaissance on my own, but the ES fakester was as good as gone. I thought a little deeper, realizing that I had told the seller I would bring cash to the location to pay for the rest of the vehicle. Now, a stranger knew that I had promised to be in a certain location, with at least $1,150 on my person. I’m glad I came early to scope out the location, who knows, I could have been robbed or hurt if I actually showed up at the agreed-upon time.

So, how can you protect yourself?

I feel like I fell for this scam because the listing was so believable. A non-functional 15-year-old car with nearly 200,000 miles really should be only worth $1,300. The seller knew how cars worked, he had a strong command of the English language, and he knew the Ohio area well enough to fool me, which made me think he was local.

I have not really ever used money-sending apps, because maybe I’m a bit curmudgeonly. If I’m out with friends for drinks or dinner, I’d rather just pay it forward, rather than belabor over dollars and cents owed for a meal at a fast-casual restaurant. Unfortunately, that means that I’m somewhat unfamiliar with the fraud protection that each app has.

Zelle, famously does not have strong fraud protection, and thieves have been exploiting this as of late. More than a few folks have found themselves swindled out of thousands of dollars because of smooth-talking, fraudsters who know that once the money leaves an account, it’s nearly impossible for the victim to get it back. Luckily, the Lexus ES fakester only got $150 out of me, more of an annoyance than an actual devastating effect on my finances. But, some aren’t so lucky.

In my opinion, and after this little episode, I don’t think any car is worth a deposit to hold unless it’s some really rare, deal-of-the-century, gotta-have-it car. Yet, if you insist on sending a seller a deposit, then:

  • Pick a cash sending app that has provisions for fraud. Services like PayPal or Venmo have some form of fraud protection, specifically for situations like mine. Other apps, like Cashapp and Zelle, do not. 
  • If the other party is unwilling to use a more secure payment app, then walk away from the deal. It’s not that hard to get a Venmo, Paypal, or other secure payment app account.
  • Before sending a deposit, be sure to get as much information about the vehicle. What is the VIN? License plate? The seller’s address or full name? Usually, I do those things, but this time I didn’t.

Thankfully, I walked away with only a bruised ego and a pocketbook relieved of $150. I’m glad I wasn’t robbed, it would be incredibly silly if I ended up dead or in the hospital over a broken tarted-up Camry with close to 200,000 miles. If you’re out here scamming folks with a busted Lexus ES, you probably needed that $150 more than I did.

Stay vigilant, y’all.