The internet is inherently deceptive. While I know most of you assume I write from a luxurious, sumptuously upholstered cabin in a perpetually globe-circling zeppelin, the truth is that I’m usually stationed on a damp mattress crammed into the back of a wrecked Econoline. In much the same way, a car buying website with a name you trust may, in fact, be a total scam. Like this fake Edmunds site is.
Neither the scam nor many of these sites are new, exactly, but they’re still very much around and many are designed well enough that they can be deceptive to many car buyers.
The basic scam is pretty simple; the site claims to be a respected escrow service, to add a layer of security when you’re paying a lot of money for a car to a stranger. Here’s how a site that seems to be part of the respected Edmunds.com describes their process:
1. Buyer and Seller agree to term.
2. Buyer submits payment to Edmunds.
3. Seller or Edmunds delivers the vehicle to buyer.
4. Buyer approves the vehicle.
5. Edmunds releases payment to seller.
The scam here is that the escrow site is first, not associated with Edmunds, and second, the escrow site isn’t an escrow site at all, just some jackass who will take your money and keep it.
A reader sent us the link to this particular site, the one that claims to be part of Edmunds so that’s the one we’ll focus on now, but remember, there’s more of these sites.
Looking at the site, it apes the look and feel of the normal Edmunds site pretty well:
As you can see, the fake site mimics the Edmunds logo, top navigation bar design, typography, and overall look and feel. It’s not quite perfect, but to a great many car buyers, it’s more than close enough.
Even the URL of the site is deceptive. The real Edmunds is www.edmunds.com, and the fake Edmunds escrow site is www.edmunds.com.trans.inv-sll.com. To many users, seeing the edmunds.com part at the beginning makes it look like the site is part of Edmunds.
It’s not, of course. The actual web domain is the inv-sll.com part, and if we do a WHOIS on that domain, we find this:
Last we checked, Edmunds is not owned and operated by a Manchester woman named Samantha.
I went on the fake Edmunds escrow site to see what I could find out from the online tech support there, and decided to ask them if the site was affiliated with Edmunds.com:
Since I’m a suspicious bastard, that actually wasn’t good enough for me, so I contacted Edmunds.com to find out if they were operating an Edmunds-affiliated escrow site with the URL I was visiting. Here was my response:
Thanks for bringing this to my attention. No, Edmunds has no affiliation with this site - unfortunately, this is a fairly common scam that impacts many third party shopping sites. When these pop up, we work with our legal team to notify the appropriate authorities, but the best prevention is consumer education. We regularly update consumer advice articles warning consumers of the red flags, and our shopper support team also posts updates as well (links below). I’ll be sure to forward this over to our Legal team.
Hope this helps,
Shocking, right? Of course, the whole thing is a scam to take your money and keep you from getting the cars you wanted with that money, possibly one of the worst crimes a human can commit. Nicole of Edmunds had a good point about consumer education, which is exactly why I’m writing this now: these sites exist, and we should all be aware of them, and not let them get away with this shit.
Adding another layer of deception, the fake site provides a section where you can see their ‘licenses.’ This is part of the website that, with cruel, cold irony, seeks to warn the buyer that this sort of escrow service is necessary because the internet is an uncertain, dangerous place:
At Edmunds, we know uncertainty doesn’t feel good. You can rely on us to ensure your vehicle or payment is protected with every transaction. When your transaction happens behind the Edmunds shield, you can be certain your funds will be safeguarded by our simple payment steps. It’s our job to sweat the small stuff. We’ll make sure your sale is safeguarded from fraud while you focus on your business.
Oh, you fuckers.
They do give some plausible-looking licenses and credentials:
... but a bit of investigating shows these to be another deception. The California Department of Business Oversight license is absolutely a real thing. In fact, the license number, 9631867, is a real, genuine license. The problem is that it’s not issued to this site.
That’s actually the license number of Escrow.com, an actual, established, and genuine online payment escrow company that does essentially the same thing the fake Edmunds site says it will do, just without all the lying and crime.
That means you can google the license number and find it’s valid, and related to an escrow company, which this Edmunds site claims to be. For many people, this could seem like a plausible validation of the site.
If you want to use an escrow site when buying a car, making sure the one you’re working with is real can be tricky, but I think the best bets are to be a bit skeptical, and keep an eye open for details.
Specifically, here’s some tips:
Look at the domain name. Really look at it. Remember that a URL can have a lot of other characters that look like URLs in the string of characters that makes up the address. Take the case of this site; here, the actual URL was at the end, before the final .xxx—the rest of the URL is just there to confuse and make it look like a real Edmunds site:
www.edmunds.com.trans.inv-sll.com. A real Edmunds site would have separated other parts of the URL with slashes, like this : edmunds.com/nonfakeescrowpart.
Weird-looking, long, or confusing URLs can be a tipoff that something is up.
Almost all major, genuine companies that are in this business have money to spend on making their websites look just right. If things look weird or sloppy, that’s usually a sign something’s up. Here’s an example from this site:
See the sort of clumsy overlap of the semi-transparent navigation window and the text box on the lower left? Also, note the awkward look of that center-justified paragraph in the window? None of that would pass muster at the real Edmunds site, and sites with design that looks bit short of professional should be suspect.
Are there misspellings, misused punctuation, foreign spellings, or other errors? Real companies don’t allow that shit. I mean, we sometimes do, but that’s different. On a reputable car-buying site, details like this
... don’t slide by. Be wary.
Look, this isn’t buying locally-brewed beer or eating bacon from the farm just outside of town. Stick with the big companies that do this sort of thing all the time. Of course, Edmunds is such a company, and this site exists, so don’t be afraid to reach out. Call or email companies and ask about sites or URLs or anything you’re uncomfortable with.
I reached out to the owner of this fake Edmunds URL via phone and email, and have yet to receive a response. Once again, I’m stunned.
Be careful out there.