Durban - Cash-strapped car owners are falling prey to con artists who offer to take their vehicles off their hands and make the repayments on their finance schemes, but instead make off with their wheels and leave them liable for the debt.

Fifty such cases a month have been reported, the South African Banking Risk Information Centre has warned.

Bogus companies have been placing advertisements in trade magazines and newspaper classifieds to lure potential victims.

The centre’s general manager, Susan Potgieter, said banks were working with police in cases where victims had filed complaints.

“Banks are concerned about offers made by third parties to vehicle owners promising them solutions to difficulties that they may experience in honouring their finance repayments,” she said.

Many such offers were scams, with owners losing their vehicles and remaining liable for the debt.

A search of the internet on Wednesday showed there were at least three major online classifieds websites with people asking for their car instalments be “taken over” or offering to do so. One website alone had more than 200 advertisements.

A “seller” from KwaZulu-Natal wanted their Mercedes SUV to be taken off their hands before Christmas, while another wanted to “purchase” a BMW 1 Series.

“We urge bank clients who have financed vehicles to approach their banks first before entering into any transactions with third parties regarding their financed vehicles,” said Potgieter.

In some instances, advertisements promised car owners a cash settlement that they could then put towards a deposit on another vehicle.

Keys were handed to a broker, but the vehicle finance agreement with the bank was never transferred or settled as agreed.

“It is not possible to take over car instalments legally. It is possible, though, to negotiate a new finance agreement for the purchaser with the knowledge and assistance of the bank,” said Potgieter.

The bogus advertisements were worded in a way that made promises that seemed too good to be true.

They often offered an end-to-end service that included interaction with the bank on behalf of the seller as well as support for buyers who had poor credit profiles.

“Any advertisements that (purport) to facilitate instalment takeovers should be treated with suspicion,” Potgieter said. - The Mercury