Beware the low-kilometre bargain buy

Published On
August 30, 2023
Written by: Graham Michaels – Automotive, Technical, and Business Writer

Car and truck buyers are at greater risk than ever from “curbsiders” – individuals who pose as private sellers but who are actually in the business of illegally buying and selling vehicles for profit without a professional licence or registration.

In 2022, OMVIC -Ontario’s motor vehicle sales regulator – laid 1,020 charges against 86 alleged curbsiders. That’s more charges than ever before. OMVIC estimates that at least 30 percent of vehicles listed as for sale by owner on popular online platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji or Auto Trader are placed by curbsiders exploiting a shortage of vehicles in the used market.

So why should you be worried about buying from an unlicensed dealer? The problem is that curbsiders often misrepresent themselves and their vehicles. That might include selling stolen vehicles – click here for more on that growing issue – or selling used wrecks to unsuspecting customers: concealing accident history, hiding repairs or tampering with (rolling back) the vehicle’s odometer.

“Many of these vehicles are purchased at auction as an insurance write-off,” explains Sam Cosentino, OMVIC’s director of enforcement. “The curbsider puts a little money into the car, to make it look good, but the underlying issues are never addressed. These are cars with structural integrity issues that shouldn’t be on the road, fraudulently passing safety inspections when they shouldn’t. If you don’t do your due diligence, you’ll be stuck with one of these unsafe cars. It’s a very expensive lesson to learn.”

Professional-looking odometer rollbacks are a rising problem, too, with more than three-quarters of curbsider cases now involving a rollback, according to Cosentino.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of kilometres,” he says. “New technology enables them to change the odometer reading on the dashboard. They’re also swapping out the instrument cluster for one from a lower-mileage vehicle, but the buyer won’t know any different.”

Consumers can help to protect themselves when buying privately by doing due diligence on the vehicle for sale. Get the vehicle independently inspected; if the seller refuses, walk away. A used vehicle information package (UVIP) and/or a Carfax history report is also a must.

“These information packages are not foolproof, but they do a good job of collecting a lot of information,” says Cosentino. “They give you clues about previous history, including whether the vehicle came from out of province, was in any collisions or was ever reported stolen. You should also be able to see the chronology of the mileage. A sudden drop could be a typographical error that needs further investigation but is also a warning sign. All of this will help you make an informed decision.”

It’s equally important to be careful about who you’re buying from. “The Highway Traffic Act says that a new owner has six days to transfer the ownership of that vehicle,” he continues. “Of course, curbsiders don’t do that. The registration will jump from the previous owner, to you, the new owner. Don’t take it on face value that the name and address on the registration is of the person selling you the car. Request ID. Get the person’s driver’s licence and see if it matches up. Don’t buy a car from somebody who doesn’t have authority to sell it.”

Remember that there is no cooling-off period on vehicle sales in Ontario. Once you’ve signed the paperwork, you’re committed. There is no safeguard under consumer protection legislation when buying privately and it’s very difficult to subsequently pursue a fraudulent seller through the civil court. Many curbsiders disappear after the sale.

“If the price is too good to be true, it probably is,” sums up Cosentino. “OMVIC always recommends buying from a registered dealer because if a deal goes bad, the consumer has protections under the Motor Vehicle Dealers Act and Consumer Protection Act, and our compensation fund may be able to support the victims of a bad deal if the dealer doesn’t make things right.”