To most of us who just want to get around at our own convenience, finding an affordably priced secondhand vehicle is very much like having our cake and eating it too. Imagine though, amassing the funds to meet the financial requirements on a good car deal, paying the cost in full and in cash, comfortably cruising through the hills and valleys of sweet Helen, then, to have police officers/bailiffs/debt collectors show up at your house demanding you hand over your car keys. Recently, a number of Saint Lucians have come forward to divulge the details on how they got trapped in the web of the used car scam.
The fiasco generally involves four parties: the buyer, the seller, the repossessor and the banks/financial institutions. How does it happen? For the purpose of this article, and to maintain the privacy of those who have fallen victim to this scam, the hypothetical buyer will be referred to as Andy and the seller, Brian. Generally it goes like this:
Andy, who has considered purchasing a car for a few months, catches wind that Brian is selling his one-year-old Nissan Almera at $45,000. Andy contacts Brian expressing his interest in the vehicle and Brian arranges their first meeting. After a few test drives and negotiations, Andy agrees to purchase the vehicle through an oral agreement. Andy then gathers the cash which makes it into Brian’s pockets either through wire transfer, issuance of a cheque or in cash. Brian presents Andy with the keys, along with a Change of Ownership form and a copy of his license or ID, as he should. Andy pays for and obtains the vehicle registration and, with the car now in his possession, proceeds to conduct daily activities with the vehicle, and he does so for months.
One day, while Andy is at home, he hears a knock at his door. He opens it to find a police officer, bailiff or debt collector who explains to him that, as per instructions from a bank or other lending institution, the car must be seized due to loan payments that Brian has failed to make. They demand the keys and take the vehicle, leaving Andy carless and down $45,000, the sum handed to Brian who, chances are, has already spent the money or, even worse, left the island.
All the cases brought forward share this sequence of events, though with varying details. For instance, on one occasion there were two sellers. The owner had someone else conduct the sale of the vehicle on their behalf, allowing for minimal communication between themselves and the buyer. In another case the vehicle had been sold twice, first by owner A to owner B, who used it for months before deciding to sell the vehicle to owner C. Eventually the vehicle was seized by the bank on account of owner A’s outstanding payments.
The instinctual step one would take when caught in a situation of such a precarious nature would be to contact the previous vehicle owner in an attempt to be reimbursed. However, according to the victims, if calls do not go ignored, ignorance is feigned or the seller resorts to denial.
A few cases where buyers sued the sellers for knowingly trading a vehicle technically in the bank’s possession were brought before the court last year. However, over a year later, those cases have yet to be settled. In two separate instances the sellers have since fled the country.
The burning question: how can one avoid being bamboozled by these secondhand car bandits? Unfortunately, according to information received from law officials, this is the risk you run when buying a used vehicle. A change of ownership, vehicle registration, insurance papers, letter from the transport board and a copy of the previous owner’s driver’s license are usually exchanged during the sale of a vehicle. However, as a buyer, you may also want to find out from all banks and financial institutions whether there is a “Bill of Sale” registered against the vehicle in question. This would inform you whether the seller has signed on for a loan for the purchase of the vehicle being sold to you, and whether he or she has paid the loan in full. Sadly, discrepancies may still go unnoticed: one victim claimed he had in fact gone through this procedure and so was shocked when authorities came to seize his vehicle.
While not all secondhand car sellers are preying on the unsuspecting, your best bet, along with scouring financial institutions, may simply be to
do a thorough background check on your seller’s character. According to law professionals familiar with said cases, some perpetrators are notorious for their fraudulent behaviour. Put simply, add the secondhand car scam to your list of things to be wary of. It is yet one more way others might try to insolently shove their hands into your pockets!