(ARA) - Shopping for cars online is easier than ever, and more and more buyers are turning to the Internet during the shopping process. According to the 2011 Automotive Buyer Influence Study, conducted by Polk and AutoTrader.com, new and used vehicle buyers spend 18 to 19 hours researching cars before purchasing, and they spend 60 percent of their shopping time online.

While the Internet has made used-car shopping easier than ever, consumers need to be cautious in order to protect themselves from fraud. Most automotive classified sites connect shoppers and sellers, but the actual purchase transactions take place through other avenues - offline and online. Consumers who want to make the move from shopping to purchasing online should exhibit the most caution.

Using ads that look legitimate, fraudsters work tirelessly to convince shoppers, particularly out-of-state shoppers, to send them money to purchase a car. One method of payment for these sellers is money transfers. However, the Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to avoid using wire transfers for online purchases to reduce their risk of getting defrauded online.

Much in the same way you wouldn't send cash through the mail to a complete stranger, don't use a money transfer to pay for a car you've never seen.

AutoTrader.com and Western Union recommend these helpful tips to help you protect yourself from becoming a victim of fraud if buying a car online:

* Choose and contact a reputable escrow service yourself after verifying their legitimacy by checking with state regulators or the Better Business Bureau. Scammers will try to make you believe they are using an escrow service, when they have actually set up fake accounts using real company names.

* Do not use money transfer services to purchase a vehicle online. Money transfer services are fast, easy and convenient ways to send funds to people you know. They are not intended to be a payment vehicle when doing business with a stranger you have not personally met.

* Be a cautious buyer and be prepared to walk away. Make sure you see the car and have it checked out before purchasing it. If the seller does not allow this and tells you that he or she will only accept a money transfer before allowing you to see the car, be prepared to walk away. If the seller tells you how to safeguard your purchase by putting the transaction in the name of a friend, don't believe it. It won't protect you from a fraudulent seller. Learn more at http://www.westernunion.com/stopfraud.

* If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you can't find a comparable deal on a car locally, it may be too good to be true. Fraudulent sellers often have long stories about why they aren't available to show you the car, why they can only be reached via email or why they have to sell it fast and therefore priced the car below market value, so be suspicious if you hear reasons along those lines. These sellers promise that they can ship the car to you immediately and will escrow your payment, but that is not the case. All the above are red flags for fraud.

You work hard to make your money, and the last thing you want is for someone to steal it from you. If you are going to buy a car you find in an online ad, make sure you take the proper precautions to safeguard your cash.Car shopping? How to protect yourself from online fraud

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Category: Automotive