Buying a new car should be an exciting and rewarding experience. However, sketchy dealerships and pushy salespeople can make the process absolutely dreadful. These shoppers share how they caught scamming car salespeople in the act. Content has been edited for clarity.
The Sneaky Scammers
“My elderly father had called me in Florida to say he found a one-year-old, low mileage minivan at a great price sitting on his trusted local dealership’s lot. He was helping to rebuild an old theater organ and needed something bigger to haul his tools and all the other stuff. I used my power of attorney to have a check cut from his home equity credit line. His ‘new’ van was paid in full and good to go. Or so I thought.
A few days later, he offhandedly remarked, ‘There was a glitch in the van’s title work when I went to pick it up. The finance and insurance guy explained the changes, and he said the problem wasn’t a big deal.’
It should have been a red flag, but my dad was happy. I was busy with a new job and a new house, so I let it slide.
His heart gave out about two months later. When I returned home to Pennsylvania for his funeral and to begin settling his estate, I spotted a thick manila folder on the kitchen counter. My dad likely left it there figuring his only child would find it when the time inevitably came.
The folder contained a bunch of documents, including the minivan paperwork. I flipped through the pages and discovered there were two sales contracts, for two different minivans. The first was for the low mileage, year-old van which matched the vehicle he’d described over the phone. It indicated the van was paid in full.
The second contract, stashed in the back of the folder, was for a much older, much higher mileage model which was seemingly identical in appearance and price to the year-old van he described over the phone. It came with a forty-eight-month, high-interest finance agreement. I pulled the vehicle identification number from the van parked outside in the garage. It matched the number found on the paperwork for the older, high mileage, dealer-financed budget lot car. What had my dad done this time?
I called the bank, and the woman working was also confused. She confirmed the home equity check had, in fact, cleared. The dealership had been paid. The bank also confirmed dad’s credit report showed he’d taken ouar loan around the same time and in the same amount as the bank transfer.
Dad’s vision had remained fairly sharp over the years. He was a retired airline pilot and, like most pilots, good eyesight was something he prided. But he sometimes needed help with the small print, and he shunned reading glasses.
It’s likely he never really looked at the ‘revised’ paperwork the dealership’s finance and insurance employee handed him the day he got the car. And it’s equally likely that’s what the employee was counting on. They took his full-price check, got him to sign a redundant loan at terms which would make a street shark blush, and then sent him off in a different and much cheaper car than the one he thought he was buying.
My dad, clearly, had been scammed. A bait-and-switch. My mom had lost her battle with cancer two years earlier, so he had no local family. Maybe, for all they knew, he had no family at all. And he had money, credit, and a tendency to trust people. He looked like the perfect ‘mark’.
The dealership, figuring the old man would never notice, had apparently grabbed a nearly identical van from a different lot and switched it with the van my dad thought he was getting. They also conned him into signing loan papers on a car he’d already paid for. I figured dad had put those papers on the counter because he likely suspected, but didn’t want to admit, he might have been duped. And now, I reckoned, he was counting on me to find out and make it right.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, financial abuse is the third most frequent crime against the commonwealth’s elderly. Thirty percent of elder abuse cases involve some type of financial exploitation, like my dad. But very few of these victims likely had a child with years of experience investigating and reporting on consumer fraud. One with a direct line, on speed dial, to the attorney general’s office. And, of course, the local media.
The finance and insurance employee, recently imported by the dealership’s new absentee corporate ownership, kept me waiting for nearly forty-five minutes.
He grunted, ‘I’m busy! What do you need pal?’
I tossed the manila folder on his desk. He gave it a quick glance and pushed it aside.
He smirked and remarked, ‘Sorry, can’t help you.’
I could tell he knew what he is eye twitch gave him away.
The civil complaint drafted by my dad’s lawyer on behalf of his estate crossed the court clerk’s desk two days later. The lawyer was a carnivore, and also a long-time friend. He was just as outraged as I was. The filing was brutal and it went for the throat. It was also a piece of art. Theft, fraud, conversion, and elder abuse. It was all attached to a mountain of exhibits, including a newspaper ad for the budget lot van my dad was tricked into ‘buying’. The dealership was left with nowhere to hide.
I tipped off the reporters at my old newspaper. The piece ran on page one, above the fold. The television talking heads also got the story. It’s funny how things tend to happen when you have a bunch of friends in the business. The resulting coverage was a PR disaster for the dealership. Similar switcheroos and fraud statements began surfacing.
Suddenly, the finance and insurance employee was nowhere to be found. The corporate suits were now clamoring to settle. The car dealership is now a bowling alley.
This kind of overt fraud is, of course, rare. It’s a needless risk when there’s easy money to be made on floor mats, pin striping, extended warranties, undercoating, and dealer fees. It’s a far more subtle, and far less messy, form of fraud. And, of course, it comes with a seemingly endless supply of suckers.”
“A couple of years ago, I bought a Lexus 450H but didn’t like it. Sure, the ride was smooth. The hybrid got me decent gas mileage, but the interior room was incredibly small and practically useless. I would marvel at the large SUV from the outside and wonder how it could be so dang small on the inside.
So I decided to trade it in.
Much of my decision came down to what dealership would give me the most cash for my trade-in. It was the previous year’s model and had about twelve thousand miles on it. I looked up the value online and headed to the dealerships.
The Toyota dealership gave me an okay price, but I was not too fond of the vehicle selections. So I went over to Honda. I drove the Odyssey, the Pilot, and the CRV. My favorite was the Pilot, it had a decent amount of space and the ride was great. However, the floors in the CRV drop down a couple of inches, which was a nice feature to include.
The dealership allowed me to drive the CRV home to ‘try it on for size’. I drove home and put my drumset in the back of the car. I was impressed! The back seats didn’t even need to be folded down.
I went back to the dealership, dropped the car off, and told the salesman I will return in a day or two. Which I did. I had my car cleaned and ready to be traded in.
I told the salesman, ‘This is what I am looking to get for a trade, and this is what I am looking to pay.’
They were almost four thousand bucks off of the estimate.
I began to walk when the salesman said, ‘Wait! My manager wants to talk to you. Don’t leave just yet.’
The manager offered an estimate only slightly higher than the first one. Dishonesty at its finest! We were going to rip you off by four thousand bucks, but now we will only rip you off by two thousand.
I left and went to another Honda dealership. This time, I didn’t say anything about the price. Their first offer for my car was three hundred bucks over what the first dealership offered.
I asserted, ‘Take five hundred bucks off the new car, and we’ll have a deal.’
Done. There was only one problem left. The dealership didn’t have the color of the car I wanted on their lot. They called the original dealership I went to and had the car delivered. I got the car I wanted, for a price I knew was fair, from the original dealership, while the other dealership got the sale.
It’s far into the twenty-first century, folks. People are not dumb. There is this neat thing called the internet which most people know how to use. I looked up the average trade-in, and the average price paid. I then took five hundred bucks off those estimates to come up with what I was looking for.
I spoke to a couple of ‘higher-up’ managers from the original dealership, after the fact. I spent fifteen or twenty minutes with each of them. They argued with me, but I wasn’t going to discuss it back.
I told them the whole story, and they replied, ‘Maybe that’s why the manager doesn’t work here anymore.’
I curtly responded, ‘No. Your business model is to extract as much money from your clients as possible. Manager or not, you know what you are doing.’
Sure, they ‘apologized’, but they didn’t need to apologize to me. I needed to apologize to them for their poor choice of a place of employment.
Always do your homework before visiting a car dealership.”
“I bought a van from a car dealership in the San Diego area in the early two-thousands. They had the new Dodge Caravan vehicles, and it was exactly what my family needed at the time. There was one nice red colored one, and I bought it. I actually wrote a check for the whole thing, as I was close to my retirement in the Navy.
The car didn’t drive but six miles before it started to have issues. I brought the car back to the dealership, and they informed me there was a factory problem with a chip, and the car needed to be sent to Massachusetts. The car would take over two weeks to fix. They offered the services of a rental car, but it was a sedan.
I just bought a full-size van for the needs of myself and four other family members, and they offered me a four-seat sedan as a temporary fix. There was no way I could fit my whole family in a car so small!
I asked if they had a bigger rental and the agent said, ‘We’re sorry, we don’t have money for a bigger rental in our budget.’
It took me a minute to digest, but I finally figured out what they were doing. I notified the dealership agent who worked with me and informed them the check would take over nine days to clear from my bank.
I replied, ‘I am going to the bank, and I am going to stop the payment on the check. Afterward, I am going to the Honda dealer across the street and I will buy something from them instead. And while your managers are writing pointless litigation about my credit rating, I am going to tell all my active duty Navy buddies down on the dock what a great deal I got at San Diego Dodge.’
I turned around and walked out of the building.
The agent stopped me in the parking lot and insisted I come back into the office. He tried to give me coffee and donuts which I didn’t like and instantly gave me a rental van at the same price.
To top it off, the van I bought took almost four weeks to get back on the road, and was a lemon its entire life.”
“I arranged to buy a vintage Volvo from an infamously shady dealer in Portland, Oregon. The dealership was selling the car at a suspiciously low price, but I decided to check it out anyway.
Upon arrival, the car was not running and had dozens of issues which were not described in the listing.
The dealer offered, ‘I can give you an alternative vehicle to make things right. We’re really sorry the Volvo didn’t match the listing.’
After I gave the dealership cash for the substitute, the dealer said, ‘You can take the car on an extended test drive. We can’t find the paperwork right now, so don’t worry about the finalized details just yet.’
Weeks later, I was still driving around in the car and addressing a bunch of mechanical issues the dealer had supposedly fixed. The car left me on the side of the road twice due to an electrical fault!
I called the dealer and said, ‘Listen, I need to return this car. It isn’t even what I wanted in the first place!’
He pushed back and replied, ‘We can’t do a return. It will be way too complicated.’
I frankly stated, ‘The car isn’t even in my name yet because you haven’t found the paperwork. This should be an easy process.’
He answered, ‘Wait, we’ll find the papers right now, just stay on the phone.’
While I was holding, I could clearly hear a woman in the background say, ‘Oh, isn’t that Frankie’s car? He came by to pick it up and we couldn’t find it.’
Amazingly, he asked, ‘Did Frank pay for the work we did? No! Tell him we totaled it out and give him something else.’
These people had sold me a customer’s car! Long story short, I got my money back when someone tipped me off as to who Frankie was and we both showed up at the dealership together. It was like something out of a movie. These grifters really do exist!”
“A couple of years ago, I picked out a new car I wanted at a dealership. They gave an estimate, and I returned the next day with a check from my bank for the amount they told me. However, now the dealership salesperson was claiming I was short five hundred bucks.
I explained, ‘I brought the correct amount of cash for the price we agreed to a couple of days before.’
The salesperson responded, ‘We should have never given you the price, it was a wrong estimate. For the price we agreed to the other day, you can buy a used car in our lot instead.’
I declined, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll let you speak to Don. He’s the guy who can play with the price a little.’
I went to speak to Don, and he was a very intimidating man. I was nineteen years old at the time, and I looked it apparently.
Don said, ‘I’m sorry about the other salesperson’s bad estimate, but you are one thousand bucks short with your check.’
What? Somehow, I went from five hundred bucks short to a thousand!
I responded, ‘I can’t do a thousand bucks extra, five hundred is all I can afford.’
Don replied, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t sell you a car then.’
As I was walking away through the lot, Don drove up in his car and told me to get in. Like a dummy, I got in the car. Don drove me around while we talked.
He asked, ‘Is there anyone you can borrow money from?’
I replied, ‘I am absolutely certain there isn’t anyone I can borrow from, I’m sorry.’
Then, out of the kindness of his heart, Don said, ‘What if I just front you the money, and you pay me back when you can?’
I may have been nineteen, but when he said the word ‘front’, bells started ringing in my head and I suddenly wanted to get out of the car as fast as possible.
I didn’t buy the car and had later heard the dealership was known to trick younger buyers. I’m glad I didn’t do any business with them.”
New Car Nightmare
“I was in the market for a new car. It was the only time I was about to make a trade with a relatively decent car for trade-in. I usually just drove my vehicles until they died.
I was letting the dealership check over my car for the trade-in value while I was deciding between two cars. The trade-in value would determine which new vehicle I could afford to purchase.
The salesperson kept saying, ‘We can’t give you a trade-in value until you decide which car you are going to purchase.’
A car dealership had never told me anything like this before.
I annoyedly replied, ‘Fine. Just give me my keys back then. I want to leave.’
The salesperson retorted, ‘Sorry, we can’t give them back. We already sold your car, and you will have to repurchase it from the dealership at retail value.’
I was in complete shock. I hadn’t even been at the dealership for an hour!
I questioned, ‘Where is my check for the sale!?’
The salesperson responded, ‘Well, finding your check will be determined when you buy your new car.’
I went back and forth with the salesperson for a while. He claimed because I wasted his time, I was obligated to buy a vehicle from the dealership.
The only person wasting time was him, playing the game every dealer plays. He kept getting more and more agitated because I was not buckling.
I told him, ‘I am not going to buy anything here until I know what the bottom line is, but I can tell you have no intention of telling me.’
He finally, without thinking, said, ‘I bet you are the kind of girl a man takes out for a nice dinner, buys you flowers, and spends his time with you, and you don’t call him back.’
I was dumbfounded. He threw my keys at me, told me I wasn’t worth his time, and to leave the dealership. Needless to say, I left as quickly as I could. After his statement, there was no telling what he would do next.
And yes, there were witnesses to his tirade. The guy was fired and the dealership is no longer in business.”
The False Photocopy
“Years ago, my wife and I went into a dealership to purchase a new car. We had all sorts of prices scribbled back and forth on a sheet of paper. Finally, we reached an agreed-upon price. I asked for a photocopy of the sheet with the price underlined, along with both of our signatures. They did not want to give it to me, but I demanded it.
The next day, I went to the dealership to pick up the car. The dealership salesperson claimed I had actually agreed to a higher price and my check was too low. Sure enough, their photocopy had a higher price. My lo had been crossed out and a higher price number was written over it.
I pulled out my photocopy and innocently asked, ‘Why does my photocopy not show the higher price? Your manager’s initials are next to the lower price on my copy, too.’
I received multiple different excuses from the salesperson.
I finally said, ‘Okay, you don’t want to sell at this price, no big deal. I will go elsewhere. But please be prepared to explain to the Department of Motor Vehicles why these two sheets have different figures.’
The salesperson quickly disappeared and his boss came forward.
He took one look at the two sheets and said, ‘Sell this man the car at a lower price.’
He walked away and I got the car.
I knew they were trying to scam me, and they were just surprised I had my copy. And I knew there was no way the dealer wanted to try to explain away the two difference sheets to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Ever since that day, whenever I buy a car, I demand a fully executed sales contract showing all fees and expenses, along with the bottom line.”
The Demeaning Dealership
“This event assured me I would never purchase a vehicle from a dealership salesperson who is obnoxious and demeaning to my wife and daughter.
The salesperson played all the games commonly used, at least in the past, by salespeople on female customers.
My wife and daughter visited the dealership to discuss a new Honda for my daughter. She had settled on the vehicle and tried to negotiate a price. After the salesperson gave them his supposed lowest price, my daughter called me.
I told her, ‘The price of the trade isn’t good, it’s at least fifteen hundred bucks too high.’
She informed the salesperson, ‘I called my dad. He has been buying cars for decades, and he said the trade isn’t a good deal.’
The salesperson arrogantly replied, ‘Well I have been selling vehicles for many years, and this is the best price you will find.’
Smartly, my wife and daughter left the dealership.
While driving home, the sales manager called and offered a price one thousand bucks better. Too late.
The next day we went to another local Honda dealership and purchased the same vehicle for two thousand bucks less.
Since the purchase, I have bought two additional Honda vehicles. None from the original dealership who treated my wife and daughter so poorly.”
“I Don’t Want To Sell This Car Anyway”
“I’m not great with numbers, so I asked the dealership salesperson for the out-the-door price of a car and prepared a check for the exact amount. When I arrived at the dealership, I was given a price of sixty bucks over the agreed-upon price. When I protested, the dealer claimed he forgot some tax or other.
I said, ‘I won’t pay it.’
He started with cheap theatrics, ‘You know what? Cancel this deal. I don’t want to sell you this car anyway.’
I had already signed the paperwork, and my old license plates had been removed.
I stood up and said, ‘Fine. We’ll go to the dealership across the street instead.’
He cried, ‘No! Stay here, I’ll get my manager.’
He returned immediately and said, ‘My manager says we’ll eat the sixty bucks.’
A friend later told me a different dealership pulled the same scam on her but offered free car washes and floor mats to get her to fork over the extra cash.”
Test Drive Tactics
“A while back, my dad was shopping around for a new car. He went to a dealership and found a mini van he was interested in, so he took it for a quick test drive. After my dad decided he didn’t want the car, the salesman produced a form my dad had signed for the test drive. The form indicated in the fine print by signing it, that he had essentially agreed to purchase the vehicle.
He snatched the form out of the salesman’s hands and ripped it to pieces before stuffing it in the trash.”