AUSTIN (KXAN) — Authorities in Central Texas are warning people about an online fraud scheme that is causing people to lose thousands of dollars and their vehicles.

The Heart of Texas Auto Theft Task Force said people are being duped into buying stolen vehicles online with cash, and when it is later discovered the vehicle is stolen, the vehicle is also taken away.

How the fraud works

Lieutenant Howard Stinehour with the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office said the online scheme started picking up during the pandemic, when people had trouble buying vehicles at car dealerships.

A majority of the stolen vehicles are coming out of the Houston area, Lt. Stinehour explained. He said criminals are easily stealing vehicles because people are leaving their key fob in the car, or simply leaving the car door unlocked.

Once the vehicle is stolen, criminals are creating fake I.D. cards and fraudulent car titles by using somebody else’s identity. The cars are then posted online at places like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, Lt. Stinehour explained.

After a potential buyer is found, the criminals will hire someone to drive the car to the buyer and make the transaction. The criminals only accept cash. When the new buyer takes the car, and fraudulent title, to the tax office after the sale, it is then determined the car has been stolen. Authorities then have to take the car away from the new buyer, Lt. Stinehour said.

The profile on Facebook Marketplace that sold the car is immediately deleted, and the investigators have limited video and pictures of the person who made the transaction. Lt. Stinehour said the task force has made arrests of people who make the transactions, but are really trying to get ahead of the criminals who are stealing the cars and creating the fake documentation to sell them.

Lt. Stinehour said the scam happens at least once a week in the Central Texas area.

Tips to avoid being the next victim

The biggest tip authorities give to avoid being conned online is to simply not buy a car online from someone you do not know.

“If you’re suspicious about something, stop. Don’t take advantage of a good deal if there’s a problem,” Lt. Stinehour said.

Be cautious of Facebook accounts that were created recently. Lt. Stinehour said an account created this year should be a warning sign for anyone looking to buy a car.

If you are talking with somebody about a car, ask for the VIN number of the vehicle. You can look up the VIN number using the resources provided by the Texas department of motor vehicles website. The VIN number can tell you if a car has been reported stolen.

Lt. Stinehour said another good tip is to ask the seller to meet you at your local tax office. You will be able to verify the title is real and you may scare someone away from selling you a stolen vehicle, the lieutenant said.

You can also call the Heart of Texas Auto Theft Task Force at 254-757-0701 if you are suspicious about a suspicious seller.