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Car and Driver: How to Avoid Getting Scammed By “Curbstoners” When Buying a Used Car

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How to Avoid Getting Scammed By "Curbstoners" When Buying a Used Car

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From the December 2015 issue
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There’s a shadowy world of car selling that makes the scumbags of Kurt ­Russell’s 1980 comedy, Used Cars, look like poster boys for the Better Business Bureau. “Curbstoners” are individuals who pose as private sellers to gain the confidence of a prospective buyer. Sometimes they’re dealers who pose as car owners to more easily dispose of undesirable stock. But the definition can also apply to people who sell enough cars to qualify as a dealer but never register as one in order to avoid the costs and the resulting paper trail. Either way, curbstoners aren’t who they appear to be, since they don’t ­usually own the car they are selling. By keeping their names off the title, they can leave you in the lurch when, for example, you find out your new purchase can’t be registered. Without a name, the curbstoner slips off into the ether with your money.

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Called curbstoners because they sell their wares on curbs, as a private seller would, these people typically deal in cars that have troubled pasts. Salvage titles, odometer rollbacks, cars that won’t pass inspections, flood-damaged cars, and even stolen cars can be flipped onto unsuspecting buyers who believe the seller’s untruths. “It’s a great car, I’ve had it for years,” they might say. “But with a baby on the way, I have no use for it.”

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Curbstoners will have an answer for every question.
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A curbstoned car will almost often have some issue with its title. To avoid being scammed, only buy a car from a seller whose name is on the title. Before handing over the cash, ask to see the seller’s driver’s license and make sure it exactly matches the title. If the person you’re dealing with tells you he’s representing the seller, find out why, and then be sure to get the s­eller’s contact information and arrange to meet with that person. If a car has multiple names on the title, as can happen in marriage, watch both of the listed owners sign. If the title is already signed, meet with the sellers to make sure they’re the ones who signed the title.

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Any paperwork issues that exist when the buyer goes to register the car quickly become the buyer’s problem. Perhaps there’s a messy divorce, or the seller is dead and somebody else signed the title before the estate was settled, or the name on the title is that of a Nigerian prince. All are problems you inherit if you buy the car. Doesn’t pass smog or other state inspections? Your problem. To help mitigate any trouble you may encounter, and to get any necessary legal recourse, you must be able to find and contact the owners of record.

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Curbstoners will have an answer for every question. Posing as caring owners, they can engender enough confidence that the buyer will fall for any story. They can be hard to distinguish from trustworthy private sellers, so, as always, buyer beware.

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You May Already Be a Curbstoner

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California’s Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t screwing around. “Selling a vehicle can put a person in violation of the law and subject to criminal prosecution,” an agency spokesman tells C/D. That’s even if you never tamper with an odometer, misrepresent ownership of a vehicle, or otherwise half-assedly cobble together some junk to sell as safe-and-sound machinery. In California, if you sell even one car for a profit you fall under the definition of a dealer as described in Section 285 of the state’s Vehicle Code. And if you are not excluded amid the word salad in Section 286, you need a license. Without a license, or the requirements demanded by it such as dealer insurance, you’re a curbstoner.

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Laws vary from state to state, of course. But used-car-dealer lobbying groups are powerful across the country, and they’re all too eager to clamp down on curbstoners who threaten their retail business.

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In April 2014, California’s DMV Investigations Division (yes, they’re armed) cracked down on curbstoners across the state, issuing 93 citations, impounding 109 vehicles, and arresting four individuals. This past August, Florida’s Palm Beach County passed new regulations allowing law enforcement to tow vehicles from improvised used-car lots. And it doesn’t take much Googling to find recent anti-curbstoning activity in areas ranging from Texas to Wisconsin.

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“We receive complaints and focus on proactive investigations for internet sites and physical locations,” the California DMV representative explains. So selling a single rehabilitated project car seems unlikely to attract the law’s attention. But if there’s a question at all in your mind whether you’re a dealer, the spokesperson recommends contacting the DMV. Here at C/D, we’d call a lawyer. —John Pearley Huffman

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