10 Car Dealer Scams That Should Be on Every Consumer’s Radar

Car shopping at a dealership

Consumers should be on the lookout for scams shady car dealers may play | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Everyone loves shopping for a new car. Actually, no one does. It’s right up there with looking for an apartment in the cold of winter or pricing caskets. The only part that’s fun is test-driving a car you know you would never buy. But that’s not really shopping. That’s borrowing someone’s car for a joy ride.

When it comes to comparing model specs, looking for discounts, factoring in finance terms, understanding fuel economy quotes, and looking at resale value (matching pre-owned versus new models), there is little to love about the car buying process. It only gets worse when an unethical auto dealer is trying to put one over on you. Then it’s anarchy.

However, you still need a car. The best way to proceed is to do your homework and never rush into any purchase. To help with dealers out to scam unwitting consumers, CarBuyingTips.com compiled the 10 best (or worst) car dealer scams consumers should have on their radar when walking into a dealership. Here’s a look at the scams you should be ready to avoid.

1. The lost financing scam

Promotion sign at a car dealership lot

Financing can’t disappear, but salesmen may tell you it has | iStock

Signing a deal for a new car is foolish if you don’t have loan terms locked in already. Leaving the dealership in a new car with on-the-spot financing leaves you open to this scam. After a few weeks, you learn from the dealer that your loan application was rejected. Now you have to accept a higher annual percentage rate (APR) on the dealer’s new loan because the original rate is no longer available.

In reality, any rate that was pre-approved with an accurate credit score should go through. CarBuyingTips.com pegs 680 as the Mendoza Line for credit scores. Below that figure, you are getting a higher rate. Above it, you get the optimal rates. These days, there are so many free credit score services that you should go in knowing your number. If you have a credit rating below 680 but the dealer offers you an extremely low rate, the “financing evaporated” scam may be in the works.

2. The ‘your credit sucks’ scam

hand checking poor option for credit score

Knowing your credit score is an easy way to avoid scams | iStock

In this scam, dealers suggest your credit has seen better days, downgrading it by a hundred or so points. That gives them the right to give you a worse financing deal and pick up some extra cash on the loan. Of course, this scam is easily avoidable if you check your credit before you head into a dealership. When the dealer says he wanted you to get a better deal but your credit score was 640, you can call him out on the lie. Before you left the cozy confines of your home, your saw your credit rating was higher.

3. Car dealer never pays off trade-in loan

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 06: A customer looks at a brand new Mazda car that is offered for sale on the forecourt of a main motor car dealer in Brislington on October 6, 2015 in Bristol, England. Latest data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show a record 462,517 new cars were registered in the UK last month, a 8.6% year on year increase, and that total sales in the year to date have hit 2,096,886, 7.1 percent higher than the same point last year and the first time the two million mark has been passed in September since 2004. The figures also showed a slight drop in the levels of drivers choosing diesel-engined cars, claimed in part to be due to the scandal that has surrounded Volkswagen and the disclosure that they cheated emissions tests on their diesel cars.

Get paperwork conforming your car loan is paid | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Trading in a car with a loan balance opens you up to some risks. CarBuyingTips.com shows where it’s most dangerous: when a car dealer “forgets” to pay off the loan and you are stuck with the balance because you never got the paperwork. A car ought to be paid off in full if you are trading it in or otherwise be sold to a buyer on the open market. Dealers would be especially shady if they tried this scam, but it has been done in the past.

4. The co-signer scam

ROYAL OAK, MI - JULY 23: Tom Cherney of Rochester, Michigan (left) buys a new 2010 Ford Fusion from Ford car salesman Stan Damer III (right) at Royal Oak Ford July 23, 2009 in Royal Oak, Michigan. Ford reported $2.3 billion quarterly earnings today.

Co-signer scams target the one with good credit | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Let’s say you are having trouble getting a loan for your car, for whatever reason. A dealer might suggest you just get a co-signer to obtain approval and head down the road. That solution might sound appealing until you realize that the co-signer with good credit ended up being the only one with the loan. It’s a scam because you wouldn’t have gotten the car without that loan and wouldn’t have gotten the loan without someone else’s credit. Catch this one before it’s too late by reading paperwork carefully. The co-signer is the one at risk.

5. The ‘online lenders are deadbeats’ scam

PLANTATION, FL - APRIL 03: Car salesman Hazem Sakallah prepares a car for a customer at Rick Case Plantation Hyundai on April 3, 2012 in Plantation, Florida. Reports indicate that automakers expect to have sold more than 1.4 million vehicles in March, about 15 percent more than a year ago and the most since 2007.

Car salesman Hazem Sakallah prepares a car for a customer at Rick Case Plantation Hyundai in Plantation, Florida | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you roll into the dealership with a pre-approval and blank check from an online lender, you should be on your merry way once you choose the right automobile. Unfortunately, you may find your dealer refusing to accept the check because he claims online lenders are deadbeats who always bounce them. Then he will hit you with a loan package at a higher APR. His scam is convincing you other people are trying to scam him. It’s creative, but you can blow up the scam by walking out on the deal.

6. The warranty scam

Woman selling a car

Warranty scams come in many shapes and sizes | iStock

CarBuyingTips.com identifies two warranty scams that are fairly common. In the first, dealers hit you with a forced warranty for several thousand dollars that supposedly comes from the bank (it doesn’t). In the second system, a warranty is sneaked into the terms of your deal so it inflates the monthly price. Forced warranties are illegal, so call the bluff and tell them you want to take it home and run through it with your attorney. The terms will change immediately.

7. The dealer prep scam

LINCOLNWOOD, IL - AUGUST 30: Wil Jordan (R), a salesman at the Grossinger Autoplex car dealership, speaks with customers on August 30, 2010 in Lincolnwood, Illinois. A strong demand for automobiles helped to drive consumer spending in July to its strongest pace in four months.

Avoiding dealer service fees requires some vigilance | Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Dealer Prep” fees are supposed to compensate dealers for the exhausting work done in the trenches after your car arrives off the truck but before you drive it off the lot. According to CarBuyingTips.com, that amounts to removing the plastic covers from the seats and windows. That would hardly be worth the $600 you might see attributed to “Dealer Prep” in a line on your invoice. This fee is almost always negotiable. Again, it is a fee that will be reduced or disappear if you take the deal off the table.

8. The trade-in loan payoff scam

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 06: A brand new Fiat car is offered for sale on the forecourt of a main motor car dealer in Brislington on October 6, 2015 in Bristol, England. Latest data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show a record 462,517 new cars were registered in the UK last month, a 8.6% year on year increase, and that total sales in the year to date have hit 2,096,886, 7.1 percent higher than the same point last year and the first time the two million mark has been passed in September since 2004. The figures also showed a slight drop in the levels of drivers choosing diesel-engined cars, claimed in part to be due to the scandal that has surrounded Volkswagen and the disclosure that they cheated emissions tests on their diesel cars.

Dealers may have you paying for two cars in some scams | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

This scam is mostly out in the open. A dealer offers to pay off your lease or existing loan so you can ditch your old ride and get yourself into (cue the Bob Barker voice) A NEW CAR! You are still paying the remainder of your loan and any penalties involved with breaking a lease, so you’re doubling down on payments in the end. CarBuyingTips.com says dealers typically try to sneak in longer financing terms (six, seven years) in order to get the payment near or even below your current monthly bill.

9. The no-warranty wrecked car scam

A salesman (L) looks at a potential buyer sitting behind the wheel of a Chrysler PT Cruiser on display at the Beijing Auto Show on April 21, 2008. The world's top car-makers are exhibiting their products in China at the eight-day Beijing Auto Show 2008, which opened on April 20 and is expected to attract up to 600,000 prospective buyers. Top manufacturers are hoping to cash in on China's booming market which rose by 20 percent to 1.85 million vehicles in the first quarter of 2008 as sales around the world slumped, organisers said.

A totaled car may be passed off without a warranty | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Why would anyone buy an as-is, no-warranty car from a dealership? You might as well pick a seller off Craigslist blindfolded and accept whatever terms are being offered. In the no-warranty scam, wrecked cars are gussied up to look like they had a long weekend rather than a funeral. There are ways to check where a car came from and whether it was totaled in the past. If you see the no-warranty offer on a car, chances are it is one of these vehicles.

10. The refinancing scam

DETROIT, UNITED STATES: Nissan displays its new 350Z car at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in Detroit on 08 January 2002. Pricing for the new 280-plus horsepower 350Z will start at a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price of 26,269USD. Customers will be able to configure and order vehicles at Nissan dealerships beginning in mid January.

Once the deal is done, feel free to ignore the salesman | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

In the 10th and possibly most sinister scam CarBuyingTips.com documented, the dealer calls you sometime after the car is in your possession. He congratulates you on this being your great buy and, not for nothing, says he’s got a way better financing package available. Say you pay $350 a month; well now he’s got a deal to make it $305. All you have to do is get back in the dealership, sign some papers, and you’re living on Easy Street.

If you fielded such a call, you would probably wonder how you were so lucky. The opposite was true. All the dealer did was extend the term of the loan to get you paying a lower amount for a longer term. Yes, the APR went up in the new deal. It’s one nasty scam, but just one of many out there in the auto consumer jungle.

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