Business Maverick

MOTOR TRADE

Victim’s website seeks to prevent others from falling prey to car-buying scams

Victim’s website seeks to prevent others from falling prey to car-buying scams

Online marketplace scams are more prevalent than ever, and one victim wants to help you to help yourself.

Purchasing a second-hand car online is a bit like playing Russian roulette: you know you’re likely to be buying other people’s problems, but you just don’t know how much of a problem you’re likely to end up with. The online marketplace is rife with opportunists and scammers looking for an easy way to cash in.

Mike Schlebach learnt the hard way. During the Level 3 Covid lockdown, when he wanted to buy a second-hand car, he went in search of a vehicle up north, away from the coastal air that brings with it so many rust issues.

In Johannesburg, he had found a car that seemed like a perfect fit, so he flew from Cape Town to view it at the dealer. If he liked it, he planned to drive it back home to the West Coast.

But when he arrived at the dealer, the car was not there. Told to wait while it was brought from somewhere else, the vehicle never materialised, but then the dealer tried to sell him a similar car, which Schlebach could see was a rebuild. When he checked the car’s VIN with the manufacturer, he realised that the odometer had been turned back and the dealer had lied about its age.

Determined to buy a car while he was in Joburg, he ordered an Uber and asked to be driven around to look for a suitable car to buy.

“Luckily for me, my Uber driver, Ronald, used to sell second-hand cars and helped me look for my new wheels, advising me on which dealers to avoid. With his help, I found the car I was looking for.”

He was lucky, but that experience encouraged Schlebach to develop Screan, a platform that connects prospective buyers of used cars with car inspection experts to save others from falling into the same trap. It’s a buffer against unknown sellers, unfamiliar locations and online scams.

Screan is linked to a countrywide network of second-hand vehicle inspection experts, called “Screaners”, who can be dispatched to inspect the car, bakkie, boat or caravan that you might have your eyes on, and report back on its condition.

Using a 60-point checklist, the Screaners carry out a mechanical inspection, a service history review and a detailed assessment of the vehicle’s interior and exterior to thoroughly assess a vehicle’s condition.

Once the inspection has been completed, you receive a detailed buyer’s report and a set of hi-res 360° images to help arm you with information you need to make an informed purchase decision.

Caravan, trailer and leisure boat Screans cost R795, with a car Screan costing R895, while a dealer and classic car Screans cost R995.

Fraud ‘rife’

Online marketplace scams involving vehicles are more prevalent than ever. The most common scam involves persuading victims to deposit money into a bank account – often sold as a “deposit” to secure the goods – before the car can be delivered. 

Backyard panel beaters are also known to trawl scrap yards for written-off, accident-damaged vehicles which they repair and sell back to innocent consumers.

Schlebach warns that this type of fraud is rife.

“These panel beaters are very good at fooling the public as they market these vehicles as a ‘great deal’ by altering the odometer and setting a reasonable price. Roughly one in every five of the inspections our Screaners do, doesn’t pass our 60-point test, which indicates the car may have been involved in an accident. In these cases, we advise our clients to walk away from the deal, saving them time and a great deal of money and headaches.”

Screan has partnered with AutoTrader. 

In 2022, AutoTrader recorded 653 million searches for cars via their website, which translates to millions of potential buyers who rely on the information and photographs they see to make a purchase decision. 

Schlebach says unless the buyer can test drive the car and have it inspected by a qualified mechanic and panel beater, they don’t know if the car even exists, is mechanically sound or has ever been in an accident.

The SA Motor Body Repairers Association (Sambra) has for years lobbied the SA Insurance Association (Saia) to publish on its website the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of all written-off vehicles.

Schlebush said used-car buyers were not privy to information they were previously entitled to. About 90% of cars that are written off and then rebuilt are left as Code 2 (ie written off) instead of being reclassified as Code 3 (rebuilt), with the purchaser having no way of checking their history. 

“Our Screaners are well trained and experienced and can tell if a car has spent time in a chop shop. They’re also able to access the VIN, which they can provide to the buyer should they ask for it. The buyer can then check the VIN by calling the car manufacturer, which ultimately provides peace of mind knowing a buyer’s dream car is legitimate.”

If you’re searching for a vehicle online, Schlebach advises:

  1. Buy from dealers that are legit and have a good track record. These dealers will have a proper website and you should be able to check their customer reviews on platforms like Hello Peter, Google or Facebook.
  2. Use legitimate dealer platforms like AutoTrader as they go some way to vet the dealers that use their platform.
  3. If the deal is too good to be true, especially from a dealer, then it’s most likely a bad buy.

Make it known

Sambra, meanwhile, said it has been actively lobbying Saia for the public release of a vehicle salvage database (VSD) that will inform all prospective buyers of used motor vehicles, whether they are private individuals or used-car dealers, of the status of the vehicle.

It is concerned about the thousands of cars that are written off each year by insurance companies, which end up back on our roads – endangering lives.

Jacques Viljoen, national director of Sambra, told Daily Maverick that a vehicle salvage database would allow consumers to know if the vehicle they were considering buying had been in a serious collision.

“This will ensure that the buyers of used vehicles have access to, and will be fully aware of, the condition and status of the vehicle. It will prevent situations such as that which the Gauteng Regional Court has had to rule on in February this year and ensure that consumers are fully aware of the condition and safety of the vehicles that they buy.”

In January this year, the Gauteng Regional Court ruled in favour of a consumer who had unknowingly bought a previously written-off car. In finding that the consumer had a  right to be informed about the true condition of the vehicle, the dealer was ordered to refund the full outstanding finance plus interest, even though the dealer had been unaware that it had sold a previously scrapped vehicle.

The consumer had approached the Motor Industry Ombudsman and filed a complaint, but was told that the body could not resolve his situation. In desperation, he approached Sambra, whose independent specialist assessor found 20 defects on the vehicle. The car had been involved in a major accident, written off, stocked at a salvage company, sold at an auction and put back on the market.

Viljoen said accident-damaged vehicles should be re-coded on the National Traffic Information System as a Code 3 vehicle, which will inform any future or prospective buyers, but “typically, insurers dispose of these vehicles at auctions where they are then bought and repaired, often to sub-standard specification, by unscrupulous repairers and subsequently sold on to unsuspecting consumers”.

Last year, Saia agreed to open its salvage database to the public and to give feedback to Sambra and the industry by 31 March 2023. However, the association now says the database will go live at the end of 2023. It’s also agreed to list Code 2 vehicles on its site.

“Until this information is readily available, Sambra will continue to sustain a strong media presence, assist consumers and retain a section on the website for any consumers who have experienced a problem with a vehicle that they suspect was previously written off by an insurer. Sambra will assist by appointing a qualified independent assessor to check the problem,” Viljoen said.

“We are also in the process of establishing a vehicle salvage task team to drive the VSD agenda and ensure Saia adheres to their new deadline of December 2023.”

A Saia spokesperson said they were making progress, but that there were some glitches. 

“As with technology-related implementations, it has taken longer than planned to ensure that the underlying platform is stable and that the data provided by insurers is secure and an accurate representation of information in their records.”

At the end of this month, Saia plans to announce its VIN Look-Up (rebranded from the VSD). Consumers will have free access to the database.

“Saia will continue to urge caution in the use of the data and the disclaimer on the look-up site will reflect that the details available will be for information purposes only, with no particular legal standing.”

The association urges consumers and the motor trade not to treat the information in the database as the “sole and ultimate solution” to issues related to the classification of vehicles from one code to another. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    This is a good move in the right direction but doesn’t solve all the problems. I purchased a used vehicle advertised on Auto Trader after inspecting the vehicle at the sellers premises. I couldn’t collect the vehicle at the time I paid, and the seller agreed to keep it for me. He then went on to sell it to another buyer and refused to refund the money I paid for it. I went to the police who couldn’t help, complained to Auto trader who didn’t respond. I was advised to go to court which I did, and the seller was found guilty in his absence. I was told if I wanted to get my money back I would have to charge him with theft, I would have to get an attorney to sue him. The costs involved exceeded the amount I paid so I didn’t pursue it and lost the vehicle and my money.

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