Is It Safe to Buy a Car Online?

March 12th, 2021 by

A smiling woman is at a laptop and trying to find cars online.

That’s a question a lot of people ask when they first consider shopping for a car online, and it’s a smart, reasonable thing to wonder. After all, just a decade ago, the notion of trying to find cars online would’ve seemed absurd and been limited to scams or small groups of private sellers. Today, however, we shop for pretty much anything imaginable online: from books and groceries to even houses and cars. Still, it’s understandable to wonder if you can really trust the whole process of buying a car online.

So, the simple answer to that is: yes, it’s safe to buy a car online. But, and there’s definitely a “but” here, you need to be sure you shop with a reliable dealer that you can trust, and that has a track record in the industry. Just like any other sort of online shopping, you want to do everything you can to ensure you’re working with a business that has your interests at heart and wants to serve you as their customer. Let’s take a look at some things to consider when shopping online for cars to ensure you get a good deal and a great vehicle.

Check Out the Website

When you start trying to find cars online, you’ll probably get a lot of results the moment you type something in like “shop online for cars” or “online car sales.” The first thing you want to do when looking at any of the results that come up is see how well made their website is and how easy it will be for you to use. That might seem obvious, but it’s easy to overlook this stuff when you’re so focused on finding the right vehicle.

Before you do anything else, spend some time looking around the website to make sure it really seems legit. Do some looking and try to find information about the company, any connections they have to other businesses, and how you can contact them. As you’re doing this, pay attention to how easy their site is to use. They should want to make your life as uncomplicated as possible, with simple search tools and all the information you need to shop for your vehicle in one place.

Look for Reviews or Comments

Whenever possible, do a search for the specific site or company you’re considering using to find cars online. Look for reviews or comments left by others about their interactions with the business and their car-buying experience. You can’t necessarily rely on these to always be accurate or even real, but it’s worth looking for. Just remember that they’re not 100% guaranteed to point you in the right direction – you’re just getting as much information as possible from as many different sources as possible.

A closeup shows a hand holding a phone with customer reviews, on a dark background.

Look for Connections to a Physical Dealership

As you’re considering a particular site or business, look to see if they are in some way connected with an established car dealership. Are they part of a larger dealership that’s been around for a few decades? Or did they seem to come out of nowhere and might not have any real experience in the auto industry?

It’s not absolutely essential that an online seller be part of a dealership, but it can help. It means there’s a physical location that you can call or even visit, directly connected to this online seller that you’re interested in. Even if you never go there, having this option can still be helpful.

Consider the Car-Buying Process

Look for a clear explanation of the process to buy a car from any online seller you’re interested in. They should explain the whole thing, and it should make sense both from a general auto sales perspective and specifically for shopping online. Make a note of this and then compare what they say to what you experience if you choose to shop with them.

If you notice that the actual experience doesn’t match up with their description of how it works, then something might be wrong. It could mean they just copied it from another service and that their actual selling process is either designed to push something you don’t want or to rip you off in some way. These kinds of red flags can be pretty subtle, but they’re important.

Choose a Dealership Over a Private Seller

Whenever possible, we strongly suggest that you choose to find cars online being sold by an established dealership rather than a private seller. Car dealerships have to follow rules and regulations that private sellers do not, rules that are set up to protect you as a car buyer. They’re also more likely to offer a large selection, and they want to impress you so you’ll recommend them to others – or at least a good dealership will.

A private seller has no such goal; they just want to sell their vehicle and move on. So there’s no reason for them to put your needs first or want to ensure you’re happy. Plus, with a private seller, there’s a greater opportunity for a scam to take place – either with a lemon or by using one of a number of payment scams often seen with disreputable online sellers.

A closeup shows two hands shaking in front of white cars.

Always Stay Safe with a Private Seller

If you do choose to buy a car online from a private seller, always take extra precautions to protect yourself and stay safe. This starts with contacting them – don’t immediately share your private information with someone you don’t know. Similarly, be very careful about how you pay for the vehicle – this includes when you send payment and what form the payment takes – to ensure you’re protected from scams.

When you go to meet with a private seller to buy the vehicle, always have someone else with you and make sure other people know where you’re going, who you’re meeting, and when. Never go with a seller to another location, even if you have someone else with you, and trust your instincts. If something seems wrong or off about how the seller is behaving, then walk away.

Make Sure Your Purchase is Secure

We touched on this a moment ago, but even when you’re buying from a dealership online, make sure they have secure payments that protect you and your money. Their website, especially any parts of the site involving payment, should be secure. Look for an “https” web address and for a lock icon on your web browser next to the address window. These are indicators that a website is secure and that your data is protected.

When your vehicle is delivered to you, give it a quick inspection to ensure it’s the one you agreed upon and in the condition the dealership told you it would be in. While most reputable dealers won’t try to scam you – and any online seller at that point should want to ensure you’re happy with your purchase – mistakes can still happen. Don’t sign for a vehicle unless you know it’s the one you agreed to buy and that it’s in the condition agreed upon.

Think About the Long-Term

Make sure you know about your options after you make your purchase. Find out about any return or exchange policies the site has before you make any kind of agreement. You should also ask about any warranties they might offer and partnerships with other businesses or dealerships for when you need service for your vehicle. All of this can make owning and enjoying your car a lot easier in the years ahead. To see just how simple and safe shopping for a car online can be, check us out at Online.cars and discover a better way to buy your next vehicle.