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Danger in Your Rearview Mirror

Dealer trickery doesn’t end once you’ve bought a vehicle.

One week after Anna Causey drove her new Dodge Ram pickup away from Hoover Dodge/Jeep/Chrysler, the dealership threatened to put her behind bars.

Hoover, which operates three dealerships in South Carolina, had credited Causey’s 1986 Buick Century trade-in for $3,500 in the recently completed Cash for Clunkers program. But after the deal was done—contract signed, title transferred and the Buick seized for scrap—the dealership called to say her trade-in didn’t qualify as a clunker, and demanded she return to sign a new contract.

“When I refused, saying we had a legal contract that they prepared, the dealership kept calling me, six times in one day alone,” recalls the 68-year-old Summerville, S.C., resident. “They said if I didn’t pay them that money—$1,000 in cash immediately and finance the rest—or return my new truck, they would file charges of ‘breach of trust’ and report the Ram as stolen.”

In reality, the dealership had apparently breached the rules of the popular Clunkers program by failing to sign a required contract stating it had verified the trade-in’s eligibility.

Sales manager Kris Whittemore and others who made the deal—and the threatening phone calls—refused to speak with Scam Alert.

But Hoover co-owner Keith Roberts explained that “apparently, Causey’s deal was made while the government computer system [to verify Clunker eligibility] was down,” adding, “Trust me, it’ll get worked out between the Causeys and myself.”

The Clunkers program may have ended but not the problem of tricky post-sale maneuvers that some car dealers use to squeeze additional money from recent customers. Among them:

• The yo-yo sale. This most common ploy, according to John Van Alst of the National Consumer Law Center, “involves a dealership calling back to say your financing didn’t go through, so you need to pay more money upfront or get a higher interest rate.” Avoid this ploy by seeking financing somewhere other than the dealership—and before you shop for a car, suggests Van Alst, an attorney who specializes in auto sales and finance issues. To determine your qualifying interest rate, get your credit score and shop at credit unions, banks or buying clubs such as Costco. If you do finance with a dealer, don’t sign anything with a “contingency clause” stipulating that the terms of the sale depend on the dealer obtaining the “promised” financing.

 

Packaging ploys. Refuse to buy items commonly packaged with loans or sold as post-sale extras, such as credit life insurance, etching the vehicle identification number (VIN) onto windows, fabric protection or rustproofing. Some dealers claim that you cannot get a loan without these add-ons. That is a lie.

 

• The ESCape. Expect dealers to try to sell you an extended service contract (ESC), which covers repairs needed after the warranty expires. But some unscrupulous dealers just pocket the money, “never activating the ESC,” warns Rosemary Shahan of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a California-based advocacy group. If you feel an ESC is warranted, shop around; the dealer’s offer should be available after the sale. And pay with a credit card, which gives you more protection than a personal check, should you discover after the sale that your ESC was never activated.

 

• Playing with paperwork. Some dealers falsify credit applications to get buyers into loans they can’t afford, says Shahan. “For instance, a buyer may write $1,100 in monthly income and sign the application. Then without their knowledge, the dealership’s finance manager changes it to $4,100.” Be on the lookout by carefully reading and getting copies of all paperwork, both before and after any sale, and verify terms and conditions with the lender.

If you spot these or any other post-sale schemes by a car dealer, contact your state attorney general.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of "Scam-Proof Your Life."

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