The worst automotive consumer horror stories of the year — and how to avoid them
Every year, tens of thousands of Americans find themselves on the wrong side of a scam, and while some have the where withal to pursue criminal charges, many lack the resources or evidence to do so. Fortunately for those people, local and state consumer protection offices field complaints and often get results, despite tight budgets and the bottomless ingenuity of grifters.
The Consumer Federation of America annually surveys these agencies to take the temperature of America's con artists, and every year car-related schemes rank among the most frequent and damaging, from towing scams to dealers who find ways to hide a 100-percent markup. Here are the worst of the individual automotive horror stories from the CFA's report released this week, along with its tips for how to not be a victim yourself.
A perennial favorite that's been made easier with the advent of digital odometers, unscrupulous used-car dealers still get caught doing this. Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection followed a tip for an Atlanta used-car lot that found it was not only rolling back miles but faking the federally required paperwork. After its probe, 17 shoppers were able to either undo their deals or get reimburse for the reduced value of their vehicles, for a total recovery of $155,888. And that's just one dealership.
CFA Tip: Most states participate in the National Motor Vehicle Administration, through which you can get information about the title, whether the mileage that shows on the odometer is accurate, and whether the car was previously declared a total wreck. Go to www.vehiclehistory.gov
Lease damage boomerang
If you turned in a leased car with 1,000 miles less than what the contract called for, and in perfect, well-documented condition, you'd think there'd be no problem. That wasn't the case for one New Jersey woman who did just that — only to get a bill six weeks later for $1,600 citing "damage" to the car. Fortunately for her, a county's consumer protection office was able to force the leasing company to drop the bill — mainly because New Jersey law requires lease agents to let consumers get an independent appraisal of any such damage bills.
CFA Tip: "When you return a car at the end of a lease, keep a copy of the lease agreement, note the mileage on it, and take photos so you’ll have proof if there are any questions later about the terms of the lease or the condition of the vehicle."
The secret 100-percent markup
A elderly New Jersey man was lured to a dealership by an ad offering a model he was interested in for $14,999, along with a $4,000 credit on any trade-in. Inside the dealership, the sales gang told him there was no more $14,999 model, but there one was just like it — except it was missing its window sticker with the detailed price data. The man, believing it was the same price, put his $4,000 credit and $2,000 downpayment against a loan he thought would be about $9,000.
Instead, the total price of the deal came out to $46,000.
Now, the CFA report doesn't explain how the man managed to sign on such a contract without noticing the discrepancy. But under pressure from the county consumer agency, the dealership admitted that it had stashed the window sticker with a total price of $20,000 in the trunk. The deal was unwound, and the shopper got the car for $14,999.