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Monday, April 25, 2016

Caveat Emptor and Car Dealers: You Can Fool Some of the People All of the Time

Almost everyone has read Abraham Lincoln’s popular saying, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I think Abe meant this to be a positive assertion that government may get away with deceiving us for a while, but in the long run, truth justice and the American way will prevail…and I think he was right.

However, it doesn’t work that way with unethical car dealers and car buyers. It always has been “caveat emptor”, or “buyer beware when it comes to buying or servicing a car. Unfortunately for a buyer to “beware” he must be “aware”…that is to say educated, mature, sophisticated and experienced. This excludes a very large segment of our population including the very young, the very old, the uneducated, those with low I.Q.’s and those not proficient in the English language. Is this one reason why our regulators and elected politicians don’t seem to care or take action with respect to the rampant unfair and deceptive sales practices of a large number of Florida car dealers? Most elected officials and regulators are lawyers and are highly educated and sophisticated. They don’t have a problem buying or servicing a car. In fact, the car dealer that tries to take advantage of a lawyer, regulator, or politician is asking for trouble.

I’ve been writing this column/blog and broadcasting my radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars, for over ten years. I sometimes feel that I’m “preaching to the choir” when it comes to advising people how to avoid getting ripped off by a car dealer. You, my readers and listeners, largely fall into the category of the educated and sophisticated, “aware” buyer. Most of you aren’t taken advantage of when you buy or service your car because you won’t allow it. Unfortunately, there are enough uneducated, naive, and otherwise vulnerable consumers to feed those unethical car dealers who prey on the defenseless among us. All you have to do is read some of the car ads in the Saturday (the biggest selling day for most car dealers) auto classifieds. To the educated, sophisticated buyer, these ads are actually funny, if you can forget the fact that so many fall prey to them and are taken advantage of by the dealers. For example, it’s hard for you or me to believe that anybody would respond to an advertisement without reading the fine print. Many dealers today are advertising prices that, when you read the fine print, are understated by many thousands of dollars. When you or I see a dealer stating that the car price is plus “freight”, we are educated enough to understand that the law requires that the freight cost be already included in the price. A shrewd buyer knows that “dealer list” is not the same thing as MSRP and that a large discount from “dealer list” means absolutely nothing. We know that the “lowest price guarantee’ is worthless if the dealer reserves the right to buy the car from the other dealer that offers a lower price.

There are those who argue that all buyers have the responsibility to guard against unethical sellers, to take care of themselves. In fact, that’s the literal translation of the Latin legal term “caveat emptor”…let the buyer beware. That’s sounds good, but what about the elderly widow whose husband recently died and who never had to make a the decision on a major purchase in her entire life? What about the young person just out of school with no experience in the real world? How about the immigrant who struggles with English? Should we be concerned about our underprivileged classes who often drop out of school because they have to go to work to support themselves or their family? You and I know lots of good people who, for one reason or another, simply can’t cope with a slick car or service salesman.

My bottom line is this, since we can’t rely on our regulators and politicians to protect those who “can be fooled all the time”, maybe we owe it to society to protect these folks. If you know someone who is thinking about buying a car or has a service problem with her car and you feel she may not have the ability to fend for herself with the car dealer, offer your support. If you’re one of the people who needs support, ask someone who can go “toe to toe” with a car dealer to come with you when you are car shopping. By the way, nobody, sophisticated or not, should car shop alone. Two heads are always better than one and it’s always a good idea to have a witness to what was said during a negotiation. And, of course, if you don’t have the time to help a person or you’re that person, you can always call me…I’m always here for you.

Monday, April 18, 2016

What to Do If You’re Treated Badly by Your Car Dealer

Hopefully the sales or service experience with your car dealer went well. But, sometimes they don’t. Now what? The advice I give you applies to all business transactions, not just car dealerships.

Your first step should be to communicate your complaint ASAP to the General Manager or, preferably, the owner. Be sure that you are talking to the real owner or the real general manger. A General Manager is over all employees in the entire company. A general “sales” manager is not a General Manager. If you can’t reach the owner (Many car dealerships are either publicly owned or owned by absentee owners), ask to see the General Manager. Often times the owner or General Manager is not aware of everything that goes on with all of their customers and employees. They might have new employee that should not have been hired or received inadequate training. Or, they may simply have a “rotten apple” that should not be working there. The ease and speed with which you can meet and speak to a General Manager or an owner is a pretty good measure of the integrity of the company as whole. If the owner or General Manager cares enough about her customers to allow total access, it is probably a very good place to do business. In fact, it is a good idea to find this out before you do business.

If you cannot reach the owner or General Manager, contact the manufacturer who franchises the dealership. Car dealers have a contract with the manufacturer called a franchise agreement and this contractual agreement requires that they treat their customers with courtesy, efficiency and integrity. Most manufacturers have a customer hotline that allows you to call and register a complaint directly. The owner or General Manager of the dealership will be made aware of your complaint. As you might guess, the manufacturer has quite of bit of clout with their dealer. If a dealer does not live up to his side of the contract, his franchise could be canceled or not renewed.

The third step I recommend, if numbers one and two don’t work, is to contact a consumer agency like The Better Business Bureau or the County Office of Consumer Affairs. These agencies will send your complaint to the dealership and request a written reply. No car dealership or business wants an unanswered complaint in the file of a governmental or private consumer agency.

The 4th step is to call the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, DMV, and/or the Florida Attorney General’s office. These are extreme steps to be used for serious, even illegal, activities. The DMV has the power to suspend or cancel a dealer’s motor vehicle retail license, putting him out of business. The Attorney General’s Office can file criminal charges and assess large fines, even jail terms. The DMV phone number is (850) 617-2000 and the Attorney General’s phone number is 866-966-7226.

Your last resort is to contact an attorney. I list this last because hiring an attorney just about eliminates the possibility that you can quickly, amicably and inexpensively resolve your differences with the car dealer. Be very careful which attorney you choose. Try to choose one that is primarily interested in helping you and not in generating large fees for himself. Under the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, an attorney is entitled to his fees and costs from the defendant in a lawsuit if he wins. These fees can be much larger than the amount of your claim, motivating an unethical attorney to spend more time than is needed and dragging out a case to generate more fees than are necessary. This can be very dangerous for you because the car dealer’s attorney’s fees run roughly parallel to your lawyer’s and you can be held liable for those if you lose the case.

Hopefully you never have to resort to the final step of hiring a lawyer. In trying steps one, two, three and four try to present your complaint as concisely and politely as possible. You have every right to be angry when you are taken advantage of, but try to let your anger subside before you speak to or write to someone about your problem. We all react negatively to someone who is profane, raises his voice, or is sarcastic. Your goal of communicating and resolving your complaint is best reached by communicating clearly, politely and concisely.

Monday, April 11, 2016

TEN BOOBY TRAPS WHEN YOU LEASE A CAR

The percentage of cars being leased, not purchased, is growing at a rapid rate. Currently it is about 25%. The manufacturers and the car dealers are pushing leasing because dealers make a lot more money when the lease a car and the manufacturers and dealers have a much better chance that you will be a repeat customer when you lease. For the careful, sophisticated consumer, leasing can be the best option, but these are ten traps to avoid if you lease your next car.

(1) You owe the bank or leasing company for damage beyond “normal wear and tear” and excess mileage. The danger here is because many people return their car to the dealership after the lease expires without getting signed, written verification of what damage exists on the car and what mileage is on the odometer. Return lease cars commonly sit on the car dealer’s lot for weeks or even months before the bank or leasing company gets around to picking the car up to send it through the auction. Anybody might be driving that lease car in the interim. It could be an employee of the dealership. A returned lease car with a full tank of gas can be a big temptation. In many dealerships the accounting for returned lease cars is very sloppy. Remember, the car does not below to the dealership, but to the bank or leasing company. The dealer doesn’t even have insurance on this car. The insurance may even still be in your name. A return lease car can easily be stolen and no one would even notice. I have heard many horror stories of customers who received bills from their leasing company weeks after returning their lease car for thousands of dollars in damage and excess mileage that they say they were not responsible for. Your only protection is to be sure that a representative of the dealership fills out, with you, a complete return lease inspection form which notes all damage, the estimated cost of repair and the mileage. As an extra precaution, I recommend taking pictures of your lease return car. Be sure that this is signed by the dealership representative and you get a copy.
(2) A lease ad with a large down payment and short term. Most lease ads you see on TV or read in the newspaper have a large down payment hidden in the fine print. A down payment of $4,000 is typical. Ironically one of the biggest reasons people lease cars is to avoid laying out more cash. Dealers do this because a cash down payment on a lease is “leveraged” compared to a down payment on a purchase. A $4,000 down payment on a lease will reduce the monthly payment much more than on a purchase. Also, watch out for shorter lease terms such as 24 months compared to 36 or 48 which are normal. Remember, when buying a car, your monthly payments are paying for the “whole car”. When leasing, you are only paying for a small part of the car…the time you use it. A 24 month lease requires less of a down payment to lower the monthly payment than a 36 month lease or 48 month lease. You can actually lease a car for “zero dollars per month” if you put up a large enough down payment. The banks call this a “one-pay lease”. All you are doing is making all of your lease payment up front and, to a lesser extent; this is what you’re doing when a dealer sneaks in a large lease down payment in the fine print.
(3) Low mileage allowance. Be sure you know exactly how many miles are allowed in your lease contract. By restricting the number of miles you are allowed, the dealer can quote a lower monthly payment. I’ve seen lease ads with as low as a 7,500 annual mileage allowance and a 25 cent per mile penalty. Most people drive a lot more miles than this. If you missed this in the fine print and are a fairly typical driver who puts 15,000 miles a year on your car, you would get a surprise bill from the leasing company of $5,625 at the end of a 36 month lease!

Monday, April 04, 2016

Car Dealers’ Latest Dirty Little Secret The “Electronic Filing Fee” aka Dealer PROFIT

This increased profit to car dealers is generally called the “Electronic Filing Fee or E-Filing Fee”, but there are other names that dealers use, just as they do for the infamous “dealer fee” like “dealer services”. Car dealers used to process the tag and registration required on new and used cars themselves. About 7 years ago they began outsourcing this to companies that can do this work cheaper than they can themselves. The typical cost of this outside service is only $10 or $12. So, not only did the car dealers reduce their expense, they passed along the reduced expense to you, the car buyer! But wait, there’s more! Car dealers are also marking up this reduced expense and passing this along to you too! I’ve seen Electronic Filing Fees marked up to $598…that’s a 5,980% markup!
At my dealership I began using a registration service company named Title Tech in 2009 and they charge me $10 to prepare the tag, registration, and title work for each new customer. This saves me considerable time and money from doing it myself. In the past I always absorbed the higher expense and I don’t pass along the reduced cost to my customers either. It’s adding “insult to injury” to mark up this cost and pass it along to you.

The word “fee” is almost always used by dealers when they are trying to disguise additional profit or to pass along an expense to you (which is the same thing as additional profit). When car buyers are lucky enough to even notice the Electronic Filing Fee, they usually assume it’s a tax or fee charged by the state, federal, or local governments. They do the same thing with the dealer fee under its various other names like documentary fee.

Florida law considers the Electronic Filing Fee to be the same thing as a Dealer Fee and requires that it be disclosed and used by car dealers as such. The language Florida requires for disclosure is “This charge represents costs and profit to the dealer for items such as inspecting, cleaning, and adjusting vehicles and preparing documents related to the sale”. The law also requires that the Electronic Filing Fee be included in all advertised prices. Unfortunately most dealers are ignoring this law just as they do with the additional profit they make with the Dealer Fee.

Dealers almost never include their Dealer Fees or Electronic Filing Fees in their advertised price which is a flagrant violation of Florida law. If they even mention that they have a dealer fee, they will say in the fine print something like “prices plus tax, tag, and fees”. A few dealers will disclose in the fine print, “plus tax, tag, and $999.95 dealer fee”. The Florida Senate says “The law requires that the fee be included rather than “specifically delineated” in the advertised price.” Most car dealers’ advertising is done on TV and the fine print disclosure is literally unreadable.

The other loophole permitted by Florida law is to allow the dealers to offer only one car with the dealer fee included in the price. That would not be so bad if the dealer clearly communicated this to the buyer. But dealers use something I call “the old stock number trick”. Every car in a dealer’s inventory is assigned a stock number for accounting purposes. A typical stock number is something like “A25771”. Dealers will put their stock number for that particular advertised car in the fine print at the bottom of the ad or elsewhere. Even if a customer sees the stock number, they have no way of knowing what it means. When the prospective buyer responds to the advertisement, the salesman tells him that the advertised car was sold but, “not to worry”, he has several more “just like it”. Yes, he does have several more identical cars in terms of model, accessories, and MSRP. But, because they have different stock numbers, the law now permits him to add his extra profit to the advertised prices disguised as Dealer Fee and Electronic Filing Fee.

It’s an affront to the car buyers of Florida that their Attorney General and their legislature allow this to continue. Car dealers have powerful lobbying groups and they clearly communicate to Pam Bondi, the AG, and the legislature that they better not mess with their Dealer Fees and Electronic Filing Fees.

Another reason you don’t hear much about this atrocity on consumers is that the media has assumed their “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” stance. The TV, newspapers, and radio are deathly afraid of losing car dealers’ advertising. Car dealers are the largest local advertisers. Some of you may know that my wife, Nancy, and I were fired from our weekly consumer advice radio show on Seaview radio which we had done for almost 7 years (We’ve been back on the air for about a year on 900 AM, The Talk of the Palm Beaches). This was because of dealer threats to cancel their advertising. When I reported this attack on free speech to the Palm Beach Post, they refused to run the story or even allow me to purchase an advertisement that states the truth.

What can you and I do about this when we have such powerful institutions as the media, Attorney General, and Florida Legislature siding with the car dealers against you, the consumers? The answer is MAKE SOME NOISE! “We, the people” support, not only the media, but the politicians. Without our viewing, listening and readership the media can’t sell advertising and without our dollars and votes, politicians can’t get elected. Call, write, or email your local newspaper, radio and TV station, and local senator and representative. Tell them you’re tired of them kowtowing to the car dealers and the Florida Automobile Dealers Association. Demand that the laws on the Electronic Filing Fee and the Dealer Fee be enforced. Tell them “We’re mad as hell and we won’t put up with it anymore!”