VANCOUVER -- Over the course of the pandemic, British Columbians have been finding new ways of getting away while regular travel is off the table. Camping, RVing and road trips have all become even more popular than they were already, but the Better Business Bureau says that’s led to a rise in online vehicle sales fraud.

Karla Laird, of the Mainland BBB, says because COVID-19 has changed so many people’s lifestyles, there are lots of vehicles available for sale online. Two-car families that now work from home might be looking to get rid of one, and others are experiencing financial hardships that push them to sell. 

“There are very good deals out there,” she says. “The challenge is that scammers have picked up on this trend as well and have started to capitalize on the situation.”

Laird says scammers are posting ads for cars and RVs online at discounted prices, and giving a fraudulent story of why they’re selling – such as a family member in the hospital, or a sudden move. 

That’s what Danika Woodburn suspects happened to her. 

In 2019, she and her husband were looking to buy a trailer, and found an excellently priced Airstream Bambi for sale in B.C. 

“It was listed at $16,000, which is low for market value so I was initially a little bit suspicious,” Woodburn says. “It looked to be in excellent condition and the seller, when I contacted them via email, sent me many pictures of the interior and exterior. All of them seemed to be in immaculate condition.”

She had found the seller on Autotrader, and sent them an email. She got the following response: 

“This camper has absolutely no mechanical problems, no accidents, no leaks or problems.

I am letting it go with shipping and handling included. The camper is now in Prince Rupert , BC, ready to be delivered to its buyer with all the documents.

Because I am not able to close the deal myself, (I am currently with my husband in the hospital for a series of heart investigations), I want to use a third party to handle the sale. This way we are both protected.

Let me know if you're interested and if you have questions.”

Woodburn says the suggestion of a third party made her even more suspicious, so she checked out the broker’s website.

“There were transport trucks and shipping containers with graphics saying the company's name, but on closer inspection I was pretty confident that many of them were photoshopped,” she says. “So I called the contact number on the website and reached a gentleman who identified himself as Mike, and he answered (my) many questions, was quite articulate and explained exactly how the process worked with them brokering the deal.”

Mike told Woodburn that she would transfer the money in trust to his company, the camper would be delivered to her family’s home free of charge, and if they were satisfied with the purchase after 30 days, the money would then be released to the seller in Prince George.

But she was still suspicious, so she called the Prince George Chamber of Commerce to verify that the company existed. It didn’t. 

“I was confident it was a scam,” Woodburn says. 

She reported the incident to the BBB, the local police, and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre - every agency she could think of. But because she hadn’t lost any money, there wasn’t anything law enforcement could do. 

“I was a bit disappointed because to me it seems a bit reactive versus proactive to wait until someone loses money, especially in this instance where it's not a small amount of money,” Woodburn says. 

A BBB investigation across North America has found that thousands of consumers have fallen victim to this kind of scam, involving a third-party broker, and millions of dollars have been lost. 

In the U.S., the BBB has even been working with the FBI on some of the scams they have uncovered. 

“The fact that consumers are being victimized even if they haven't lost money should be an issue that warrants attention,” Laird says. “You don't want to wait until it escalates or gets out of control. The BBB does recommend that law enforcement take some greater initiative and concern and actually make note of these cases and, possibly, even do their own investigations at a local level.”

Woodburn and her family found another, locally-made trailer for sale and bought that one instead – and she says it’s perfect for her husband, dog and one-year-old son. But she’s glad she trusted her gut and didn’t go ahead with the Airstream purchase. 

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Woodburn says. “When you come across something like this, report it. I was a bit disappointed in the lack of follow up, but I feel that as a good neighbour it's important to report these things to hopefully (keep) it from happening to someone else.”