As if buying a car isn't confusing enough, now there are sneaky consumer cons to watch out for.
Several weeks after purchasing a used Toyota Highlander, AARP member Maurice Leckington, of Clearfield, Utah, noticed a puzzling $398 charge labeled Protection Plus Etch in the sales agreement. A call to the dealership confirmed that he'd been charged for glass etching — a security add-on in which a code number, often the vehicle identification number (VIN), is etched into each of the vehicle's windows.
Finance director Scott Roper at Toyota Bountiful, in Bountiful, Utah, said the add-on would help identify the car if it was stolen and could earn Leckington an auto-insurance discount. Leckington was certain he'd not been told about the service at the time of sale, and a check with his insurer revealed it offered no such discount.
Hoping for a refund, Leckington called the dealership more than 10 times over the next few months and says he was promised multiple times that he'd be sent a refund request form. But it never arrived. So he reached out to AARP On Your Side.
While etching vehicle windows is not an outright scam, the practice is of dubious value. You may well find that your insurance company does not discount premiums for vehicles with etched windows. The few major insurers I telephoned didn't. Moreover, charging $398 for a procedure an owner can do with an $18 kit from Amazon seems a bit cheeky. I asked Toyota Bountiful's sales manager about the massive markup. Auggie Wasmund said the price included an insurance policy that would pay the deductible if the car was stolen.
Leckington was certain he was never told about an insurance policy and had never received any supporting paperwork. Faced with that claim and unable to provide proof to the contrary, the dealership decided to give Leckington a full refund for the etching.
Piling on extras such as etching, undercoating and extended warranties is an American car-sales tradition with little chance of changing. That said, you can help protect yourself from excessive bonus items the next time you're kicking tires. The key is to take your time. I recommend making at least three visits to a dealership before purchasing any vehicle.
- First visit: Identify the right car and get an initial price. After that, head home to research pricing at other dealers. You might be pleasantly surprised to receive a call from the original dealership, too, offering a "substantial discount" on its first offer.
- Second visit: If the price seems in the ballpark, this is when you'll negotiate a tentative deal. But don't sign yet. Take all the paperwork home. Read it carefully, and make notes. If the dealership won't let you take the paperwork home, explain that it just lost a customer.
- Third visit: Finalize the agreement, making sure to get every question answered. Don't agree to having any features added or prices changed in any way … other than down. Closely inspect the vehicle for damage or missing parts; take another test-drive of the specific car with the salesperson. If you find any problems, demand that they be repaired before you sign.
Of course, the dealership is not going to be happy that you're taking so long to make your decision. Just keep in mind how long you had to work to earn the bucks for that car — and you won't feel so bad about making sure you're getting your money's worth.
Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at AARP On Your Side.