Con Watch: Automobile Recall Scams

Oh no! Your car has a serious safety recall…or does it?

Cars in a parking lot

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

When defects are discovered in automobiles or trucks that pose an unreasonable safety risk, their manufacturers send out recall notices to affected vehicle owners. Most often these recalls are done voluntarily by the automobile manufacturers, but sometimes the defects are ordered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As part of the recall, depending on the particular problem, the manufacturer will either repair the car, offer a refund, or in unusual circumstances buy back the vehicle (an option in the 2017 recall of Volkswagen vehicles due to emission control issues).

These notices are important and should get your immediate attention because they are often related to serious safety defects. When you do get a legitimate recall notice, you should contact your local automobile or truck dealer to schedule an appointment to have the problem fixed. There is never a charge for work performed by the automobile dealer in regard to a recall.

Here Come the Scams

Anything that demands your attention will inevitably be corrupted by scammers, which includes automobile recalls. The FTC recently settled a lawsuit against three car dealerships in Virginia and Maryland — Passport Toyota, Passport Nissan of Alexandria, and Passport Nissan of Marlow Heights. These dealerships sent out notices by mail entitled “URGENT RECALL NOTICE” to more than 21,000 vehicle owners, although few actually were subject to recalls. The intention of these phony notices was to lure people into the dealerships in an effort to increase business.

Other scams related to phony automobile recalls start with a telephone call informing you of a recall and then asking for personal information that the scammers then use to make you a victim of identity theft. The scammers will often use a technique called “spoofing” to manipulate your Caller ID to make it appear as if the call is coming from your automobile or truck manufacturer. Other times the call will appear to come from a self-proclaimed consumer advocacy group. Scammers may also contact you by email or text message.

Never give personal information to anyone who calls you on the phone, email, or text. You can never be sure that the source is authentic. If you think the recall may be legitimate, contact your automobile manufacturer at its 800 customer service number or contact the NHTSA for more information.

Legitimate recall notices are always sent by regular mail by the manufacturer. If you receive a telephone call, text message or email purportedly being sent by your car manufacturer notifying you of an automobile recall, you can be confident that this is a scam. In addition, NHTSA rules require official recall notices to be sent in an envelope that has the NHTSA’s logo as well as the logo of the Department of Transportation. Some scammers will copy the logos on their phony recall notices, so a logo on the envelope doesn’t mean that it is a legitimate recall notice. Always check with your dealer or the NHTSA.

The Solution

Fortunately, if you want to investigate whether your car or truck is subject to a current safety recall, you can go to and enter your vehicle identification number. In addition, you can sign up to be notified by NHTSA by email whenever there is a recall.

Automobile recalls are serious business and you should respond to legitimate recalls promptly, but it is important to make sure the recall is authentic.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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