GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- The time-honored phrase "Caveat Emptor,'' or let the buyer beware, rings true for Dalton Jonkman of Rockford, who spent $4,700 for a car on Craigslist, only to discover it was a lemon.
And it likely haunts a Grandville man who in February wired $28,350 to a person who advertised a 2011 Infiniti on CAR.COM.
After wiring money to a Bank of America account, all contact from the seller ceased. No car and no refund.
In September, a Sparta couple paid $12,500 for a GMC Terrain advertised on Craigslist. They couldn't keep it; the rightful owner wanted it back. The Terrain was stolen in Warren, Mich. a week earlier.
The potential for fraud is just a keystroke away. And while state and federal investigations have kept it in check, online fraud remains an on-going nuisance for car buyers.
"There is still crime on these different sites, no doubt about that, but I think a lot less than in the past,'' said Michigan State Police Lt. Christopher McIntire. "These on-line sites don't have the same requirements as traditional pawn shops so they can sell things a little easier.''
The average loss per Internet scam is $4,100. And complaints to the Internet Crime Complain Center hit nearly 290,000 in 2012 – an 18-fold increase over the past decade.
"These scams come up all the time and typically they're outside the state; outside the country so they're hard for us to track,'' McIntire said. "They're shut down pretty quickly, normally. The federal government investigates a lot of those types of scams. ''
Kent County Sheriff's detectives tried to recover the Grandville man's $28,350, but finding the buyer was like chasing a ghost. They traced the money to South Carolina and then to a beauty salon in New York City. The case was turned over to federal investigators when the trail led to Romania.
"Not a lot of recourse there,'' McIntire said. "There's nothing criminal about being stupid sometimes.''
Dalton Jonkman said desperation drove him to buy a car without having it checked by a mechanic. He needed to replace a totaled vehicle so he could get back and forth to work in Lansing.
He bought his previous car on Craigslist from a Grand Rapids seller and had it checked by a mechanic. When that car was smashed in a wreck, he turned again to Craigslist and found a blue Honda Civic in Holland.
"The guy told me his 'aunt' had had the vehicle for a long time and it had been a fantastic car for her,'' Jonkman said. "Because I was in such a hurry to get a car, I didn't get it checked out. And this is what I get stuck with.''
Jonkman learned the car actually was purchased at a Detroit area salvage yard shortly before he bought it. When it started having problems, he took it to a mechanic. "They went to look at the car and came back and said 'you're in trouble,' he recalls.
The frame was bent, the steering wheel didn't work properly and the airbag had been deployed. The list of woes goes on.
"They took $4,700 from me and left me with a car that I can't drive,'' said Jonkman, who plans to study aviation at Western Michigan University.
McIntire says there are several precautions shoppers can take before buying vehicles online.
"Ask a lot of questions,'' he said. "Ask for the title information for the car. Ask for the VIN Ask for the license plate number. If you start asking all these questions and the person is trying to scam you, there's a relatively good chance they're going to cut off all communication and try to get the next person.''
Craigslist offers information on how to recognize and avoid online scams at www.craigslist.org/about/scams
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also has information on online fraud at http://www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/internet_fraud