Over the years, the Internet has grown from a relative novelty into something households steadfastly rely on it for nearly every aspect of life.
Bills are paid online, professional and personal communication is conducted through the Internet and couples even begin relationships online.
The Internet has also changed the way consumers make their purchases. Nowadays, even big-ticket purchases, like cars, are made online.
However, some consumers still fear using the Internet to find their next vehicle, preferring to buy cars at a local dealership.
While there's no guarantee everything will go swimmingly when buying a car online, there are ways consumers can lessen their risk of being victimized.
INVESTIGATE THE SELLER:
Consumers can be victimized by a disreputable dealer in person, but the general consensus among consumers is such sellers are now more common online.
That may or may not be true, but consumers can get peace of mind by investigating the seller before any money exchanges hands.
Once you find a car you like, email the seller, asking for additional photos and attempt to set up an appointment to see the car.
The seller's initial response will likely speak volumes. If the seller responds with additional images and provides times to set up an appointment, that's a good start.
Any resistance from the seller should be a major red flag and consumers should look elsewhere.
One great way to investigate sellers is to look for a car through a website like eBay Motors.
This site has thousands of car listings and buyers can click on the seller's name to read the reviews of past customers.
This might not provide a wealth of information when buying from private sellers who don't often sell cars, but it can be a great source of information if buying from a dealership or auto shop that routinely sells cars via the Internet.
INVESTIGATE THE CAR:
The seller isn't the only thing that might be a fraud. The car itself might not be what it's cracked up to be.
When shopping for a car online, always get the Vehicle Identification Number. This will appear as the VIN in an ad for the car.
The VIN can be used to obtain a vehicle history report from a company like CARFAX.
Trustworthy sellers might provide the vehicle history report, but if a seller doesn't, that's not necessarily a red flag.
Vehicle history reports typically cost between $3040, but sellers can often buy up to five such reports for less than $50.
If a seller has already purchased five and they weren't returned by prospective buyers, it's hard to blame the seller for not buying more. To get the report, you simply need the VIN.
Once you get the vehicle history report, it will reveal if the car has been in an accident, if it's been victimized by flooding, if the airbag has been deployed, odometer readings, number of previous owners and if the car has been resalvaged.
Altogether, this should paint an accurate picture of what the car has been through.
If the car appears on the up and up, then ask the seller to take the vehicle to your own mechanic for inspection.
If the seller balks at this request, walk away, no matter how good the vehicle looks on its history report.
PAY THE SAFE WAY:
A personal check, a wire transfer or a plain old bundle of cash is not the way to purchase a car online.
Such payments are not traceable once the checks have been cashed, the money has been wired or the cash has exchanged hands.
When making payments, do so using a secured browser, which will be noted with a URL that starts with "https: " and not just the "http: " of standard websites.
But safe buying online goes beyond secure websites. Buyers should always pay with a credit card when shopping online. Doing so protects consumers against fraud.
If the car you "buy" isn't delivered or it's been sold to someone else, then the credit card company whose card you used can be used to get your money back.
Notify the company immediately. Some websites even offer their own purchase protection programs to safeguard buyers in the case of fraudulent purchases.
Buying a car online makes some consumers understandably nervous. However, when exercising caution, buyers can find great deals.