The Perils of Purchasing a Used Car

Planning on buying a used car soon? Then first open your eyes – very wide. In our office, over the years we’ve seen it all. Frauds perpetrated on used car lots against California consumers are common, and may be getting worse.

There are various types of fraud:

What kinds of fraud are there? To name a few, the dealer forging your signature on documents, tampering with the odometer, falsifying figures or terms on a lease, and lying about the previous ownership history (for example, failing to disclose that the car was a prior rental). One of the most common types of fraud encountered by our clients is being sold a used car with undisclosed, extensive collision damage.

Often the consumer, before purchasing the vehicle, asks the salesperson if the car was ever in an accident, and that salesperson indignantly replies something like this: “Absolutely not! If it had been in an accident I couldn’t sell you this vehicle even if I wanted to.” At some point later, when you discover to your chagrin that the car indeed had sustained major collision damage, the salesperson’s false claim may play back in your mind, but be assured that the same salesperson is never going to admit to having made such a representation.

Actually, a lot of dealerships have become more brazen about committing fraud and will even claim they are not obligated to disclose any structural accident damage to a consumer before the sale, even though this is complete nonsense.

The Moral of the Story:

Don’t believe anything a used car salesperson tells you, especially if they aren’t willing to put it in writing. Just don’t buy it if you hear, “The previous owner is starting a family and just needed to get a bigger car,” or, “The vehicle was kept in mind condition and belonged to the owner’s wife,” or the salesman’s uncle, brother-in-law, etc. For all you know, the car could have sustained massive frame damage, been declared a total loss by the insurance company, then sold to an auto auction without a salvage title, from whence it finally ends up before you on the used car lot. Before you buy, get the vehicle checked out by a good mechanic at a reputable auto body repair facility. Also, demand a copy of the car’s repair history.

CarFax or TrueCar Do Not Necessarily Contain All of the Information about Vehicle History

Just because a car has a “clean Carfax” does not mean that it is a clean car. Carfax only reports vehicle history which is reported to it, and insurance companies—the ones who would pay for repairs after collisions—do not generally report to Carfax. Carfax also sometimes does not have vehicle information for many months after a consumer purchases the vehicle. Thus, when the consumer bought the car, it had a “clean Carfax,” but six months later there is a report of a collision or a prior rental history on the Carfax. Carfax is a tool, yes, but far from a perfect one.

Most consumers unfortunately do not follow this advice:

A few weeks after purchase the death trap is rattling down the road, falling to pieces. The consumer takes it into a body shop for an inspection, or at a dealership for repairs, and is informed that the car had sustained severe collision damage such that its structure now consists of twisted metal and Bondo. The consumer is told, unfortunately, that the vehicle can never be repaired adequately to make is safe to drive, or bring it back to the manufacturer’s specifications, and that to even attempt to do so would cost thousands of dollars.

Starting Your Case:

This is the point at which your legal case can begin. Armed with the inspection report (which should include color photos highlighting the accident damage), you are ready to do battle with the dealership that ripped you off. Try to make suitable arrangements so that you won’t have to use the vehicle if the inspector tells you it is not safe to drive. Write up a diary detailing everything which transpired to this point, complete with dates, first and last names, telephone numbers, and all misrepresentations made to you. Write a certified letter to the dealer giving the facts and demanding your money back.

Don’t be surprised

At this point, the unethical used car dealership will try to blame it all on you. This callous attitude may be difficult for you to comprehend, but it is nevertheless commonplace. To reiterate, make sure you get a good, thorough inspection of the vehicle detailing all of the damage noted. Keep in mind that in the legal sphere, complete and accurate documentation is vital to your case.

Please protect yourself:

To help avoid getting yourself into this depressing predicament, again, do not believe any “sales puffery” about the car from the dealership and do take the vehicle in for an inspection by a qualified mechanic and body shop before you buy. By a “doubting Thomas.” By doing so, you may save yourself more money and headaches than might believe.

*The above is an abbreviated and slightly edited article of the same title by Mr. Brennan

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