Online car buying fraud and how to avoid it

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It would have been quit the sight in Europe; A beefed up Ford pick-up truck making its way down the road. Frank Piaia decided to buy an American truck in America and have it shipped to his home in Luxembourg.

He was sent more than a dozen photos of the truck. It was big and white with eye grabbing graphics. He was told it was in Texas.

The seller suggested that frank go through Edmunds for escrow and shipping, so Frank wired the money. Then he got some bad news.

"A friend of mine called, " Frank says he knew about those trucks and what they cost, "He says the deal is too good to be true. He said you have to be careful."

Worried, Frank emailed Edmunds to make sure everything was on the up and up.

"I logged in and saw a ticket titled 'doubt,'" says Edmunds employee Kirstie Ruffolo, "Of course my heart sank for him because he had wired $34,500."

Kirstie had found the email soon after it was sent.

"Three minutes later," Frank says, " I get an email from Carol (Kristie) and she wrote don't even finish reading this email. Contact your bank. Do everything you can do. This is fraud."

Turns out Edmunds doesn't even offer escrow services. Frank had been faked out by a phony Edmunds website.

As part of the sales agreement Frank was to pay in a very specific way. He was to wire his Euros to the United States, where they would be exchanged into dollars, then sent on to the United Kingdom where the supposed owner now lived.

The process, Frank says, "was very, very slow so they were able to stop it at the very last minute."

That's right, Frank didn't lose a dime.

He says from now on he will buy all vehicles in person.

Senior Consumer Advice Editor for Edmunds, Carroll Lachnit, says that's not a bad idea.

"People can be lured in by, 'My gosh that is half the price of what I expected to pay.' By then you begin to go down this road, that that is what the owners want you to do, to have increasing comfort with the transaction," said Lachnit.

Kirstie says she is just glad she got to that email fast. "I was so happy this managed to work out."

Edmunds has a pricing guide. If the car you are looking at doesn't fit in with in the parameters you find there, you have to ask yourself why.

Click here to see Edmunds guide to avoid online buying fraud.
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