How to Identify & Avoid Online Motorcycle Buying & Selling Scams

Online motorcycle sales services are very convenient—but they can also set you up for rip-offs. Here are some of the scams—and how to avoid them. By Marc Cook

This just in from our Penetrating Glimpse Into the Obvious Department: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Conventional wisdom is often ignored in the flush of the moment, the realization that motorcycle you want but can't have has become suddenly, tantalizingly available. Say, a Ducati 996 in perfect condition for $4000. Or perhaps you have something to sell, a model not absolutely the most popular around, and you've been getting little response. Then, out of nowhere, a foreign buyer emerges willing to pay what you're asking. Only there's one little catch...

In the brave new world of electronic commerce, scammers flourish, protected by the firewall of anonymity and the ability to cut and run from one sales resource to another with the speed of a keystroke. Although such electronic classifieds as eBay and CycleTrader.com are a tremendous boon to the used-bike shopper and seller, they, among others, are infested with scammers. Their only desire is to get your money.

It's almost comical how consistent some of these scams are, particularly the would-be buyer routine known popularly as the Nigerian Scam. (Some say classes are held in Africa to teach potential criminals how to work the details.) Here's how it goes down.

You are contacted by someone interested in buying your bike. He is overseas but, thankfully, has a friend in the States who can manage the shipment of your bike to him. (You should wonder how hard it must be to get an RF900 in Belgium, where the buyer proclaims to be, if he's willing to import one from the U.S.) Turns out, this friend owes him money, and if you wouldn't mind, could you help even the score? Let's say you want $2000 for your bike. The scammer will say his friend owes him $4000, which he will pay you with a real, no-kidding cashier's check. All you have to do is pay the scammer the difference, minus a little bit for your trouble, and wait for his friend to come pick up the bike and ship it to Antwerp.

You've guessed by now that the cashier's check is a phony. The problem is, it can take banks from a week to a month to process some financial instruments. Even after you think the check is good and the money is in your account—when it would seem prudent to send the scammer his cut—the check can still bounce and you're out the scammer's cut. And the scammer's friend never shows up to get the bike. A variation has you ship the bike and send the excess minus shipping.

Although their games are well-known, scammers keep popping up. There are plenty of marks out there in cyberspace. For their part, online trading facilitators have been aggressive in shutting down scams they're made aware of. But identity theft is becoming more common, so it's harder to blacklist a certain user name or e-mail address.

The other side of the scam coin involves bikes so ridiculously cheap that, as we said, they have to be too good to be true. Nine times out of 10 the suspect bike isn't owned by the seller, and in many cases the photos of bikes for sale have come from individuals' personal Web pages or other sources. (Sometimes such images are a first clue. If the seller says the bike is in, say, New Hampshire, but the photos clearly show Arizona plates, then you have some reason to suspect a scam. Of course, it could all be legitimate, but now you have one more question to ask.)

This scam is very simple. The cretin will post a bike for sale with some complicated story. He's in Europe, but his friend has his bike in safe storage somewhere in the United States. You need to send our Euro-vacationing pal the money and his friend will take care of the rest. Right.

Here are a few ways to detect the scam right off.

  • If the bike is priced well below the book value, it may be a scam. For most shoppers, this is the first turnoff, leading to an immediate dismissal of that bike.
  • If the seller can only be reached by e-mail, it could well be a scam. Many of these bad listings will have phone numbers posted, but they won't work. Spend the dime and check the number.
  • On eBay, if the seller offers you a special bro deal and allows you to buy the bike out from under the auction, it's probably a scam. Unless there's a "buy it now" button, this action violates eBay's terms-of-use agreement. Furthermore, it's likely this Joe will try to sell his nonexistent bike more than once.
  • If the seller demands certain forms of instant electronic payment for all or a large portion of the sale price, it's more likely to be a scam. If the seller is legit, he can wait for more protected forms of payment to be carried out.
  • Be extremely wary of sellers insisting on their own escrow company. There are many good escrow services, but many others are not on the up-and-up. If the seller demands use of an escrow service, you do the picking; if that's a deal-killer for him, walk away.

    Electronic sales channels provide a tremendous amount of flexibility; a good thing if you're looking for an unusual bike or like browsing from your office chair. But the rules of caveat emptor apply here, plus a few new ones. One more thing: Protect your identity. Don't use obvious passwords and never respond to an e-mail from the listing service asking for your user name and password—this is almost certainly a thief looking to steal your identity to fleece others. Don't help.

    Seven Steps to a Safer Sale

    1. Know what you're getting by doing your research. Find out about the typical problems of any given model and absolutely check the current value of the bike through services such as Kelley Blue Book.

    2. Avoid buying long distance. Unless the bike you want is ultra-rare or you can work out a deal with a trusted friend or a dealer that you find to actually look at the bike and talk to the seller, don't bother. There are plenty of risks buying and selling locally, and you're only adding to the misery if you seek to do this long distance.

    3. Always be wary of complicated deals. If you are asked to pay a third party, who will then pay something to the buyer, walk away. It's up to those two to work out their deal. You are buying or selling a motorcycle; you are not a bank.

    4. Be wary of large down payments to "hold" the merchandise in question. The rule of the used-bike jungle is "first in with the money gets the bike." Beware of bait-and-switch tactics. "Oh, that bike just sold, but I have another just like it..."

    5. Make use of locals. Chances are good one or more of the user groups for your motorcycle will have someone near the bike for sale.

    6. Insist on a face-to-face sale. Sure, you'll drive away the occasional legitimate online deal, but you'll likely avoid most of the scammers.

    7. Check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the title against the actual motorcycle. This is often overlooked and occasionally turns out to bite the new buyer. Also, make sure it's a "clean" title, that is, one with no encumbrances, such as a bank or mechanic lien. Make certain the title isn't marked "salvage," because it means the bike was totaled by an insurance company in the past and is now worth a lot less money.

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