Buying a car from a dealer in California may get even more hazardous to your financial health

When you buy a car at an auto dealership, you should be able to get all the terms in writing BEFORE you sign anything — right?  Right. But for California car buyers, that may change. Why? Because car dealers are aggressively lobbying to get rid of the consumer protection laws in California that currently prohibit them from using “e-contracting.”

The California New Car Dealers Association and Enterprise Holdings (one of the largest sellers of used cars) are pushing for passage of AB 380, authored by Assemblymember Matt Dababneh (D-Van Nuys), powerful chair of the California Assembly Committee on Banking.

But consumer groups including CARS, CALPIRG, the Consumer Federation of California, and Consumer Action are fighting back, to preserve protections for California car buyers.

What’s wrong with e-contracting in car transactions?

Unscrupulous car dealers and shady lenders LOVE “e-contracting.” A LOT. That’s because the combination of high-pressure sales tactics at the car dealership — aimed at consumers who are often tired and feeling rushed after hours of haggling and test-driving cars — and all-electronic transactions make it much easier for dealers and crooked lenders to get away with fraud, forgery, and other illicit (but oh-so profitable!) flim-flam.

Among crooked car dealers’ favorite e-contracting scams: selling cars in excess of the agreed-upon price, “packing” loans with thousands of dollars in unwanted, high-profit, worthless add-ons, overcharging for license fees and pocketing the difference, selling cars that fail to pass smog,  charging bogus “government” fees, and engaging in other types of fraud.

Unlike with home purchases, where there are strict, built-in protections, auto sales transactions fail to require the seller to provide you with a written, good faith estimate of all the costs three days in advance, before you sign.  Buying a car is much riskier. It’s also riskier than credit card transactions, where there are limits on your liability in the event of identity theft or fraud.

You have a lot to lose

Under the federal Truth in Lending Act, you are entitled to get all the disclosures about an auto loan in writing. BEFORE you sign anything. Like: What will the monthly payments be? How much will you have to pay in interest?  How long will the loan last? Up front. In your own hands. Then if you wish, you can leave the dealership and take that document with you and shop around, to see if you can find another dealer or lender who will beat that offer. You have that important right, thanks to federal law.

California law also prohibits dealers from using e-contracts. That means when you buy a car in California, the dealer should hand you a paper document, with everything in writing, all nicely filled in. You can look at the entire document at one time, or zero in on any part of it. You get to review the whole contract before you decide whether you want to agree to anything. You can tell that “friendly” F & I manager to stop hovering over you, while you read it. You can take it with you while you sip a cup of coffee in a quiet spot. You can show it to your spouse, or friends, or an attorney, or anyone you wish,  BEFORE you sign.

But if the dealers and lenders have their way, and gut California’s law against e-contracting in auto sales, dealers will be able to get away with concealing vital terms on a computer screen that you may not even be able to read. You certainly cannot take the computer or e-pad with you and shop around. It won’t be in your control. Instead, it will be in the dealership’s control.

If  AB 380 passes, car dealers can lure consumers into signing in advance that they agreed to let the dealer use e-contracting, to buy a car.  They can make it sound like it’s no big deal. Then they can use that against car buyers, if there are any disagreements over what they agreed upon. Making matters worse, “signing” can be done by anyone who has access to the computer — with the click of a mouse.  It would become virtually impossible to prove your signature was forged. Your “signature” could be added with a click. By anyone.

And — you won’t get anything in writing, on paper, until AFTER the documents have already been “signed.” By then, it’s too late, and you may be held legally obligated to pay, even if you are the victim of a scam.

Consumers fight back

Some dealers in California have jumped the gun and are already acting as if it were legal for them to use e-contracts. With unfortunate but predictable results. Consumers are starting to complain they didn’t get to see the screen, and dealers are adding thousands of dollars extra, above the purchase price that was negotiated; giving the consumers thousands less than the agreed-upon value of their trade-ins; and adding in worthless, expensive service contracts  — even when the consumers rejected them, during negotiations. One dealer added over $4000 in multiple unwanted, worthless extra service contracts onto the purchase of a new car, plus “surface protection” costing over $1200 and “Lo Jack” costing $695 — extremely high-profit items for car dealers.

In some cases, consumers have won the right take these dealers to court, because the judges agreed that the contracts were not binding, citing the existing law that prohibits e-contracting. Otherwise, the consumers could be forced into arbitration, basically being compelled to surrender their Constitutional right to fight back in a court of law.

If the predatory dealers and lenders win, and AB 380 passes, consumers would be likely to lose those court challenges they are winning now, and could be forced to give up their ability to hold unscrupulous dealers accountable.

Winners and Losers

If AB 380 passes, the biggest winners will be large auto dealership chains like AutoNation, which took in over $19 billion in gross revenue in 2014. They are publicly traded on Wall Street. Their biggest investor? Bill Gates.

The biggest losers will be California’s new and used car buyers who can ill-afford to give away thousands of their hard-earned dollars to mega-dealers and big banks for the privilege of being ripped off.

What can you do to help stop AB 380, the crooked car dealers and fraudulent lenders’ favorite bill?

Call your Assemblymember and tell them to vote NO on AB 380. Buying a car from a car dealer in California is already dangerous enough.  Here’s where to find out who your Assemblymember in Sacramento is: Find Your Legislator

Thank you! Every call helps make a difference!

Read more:

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety’s letter opposing SB 308 (Dababneh)

CALPIRG’s letter opposing SB 308 (Dababneh)

 

 

 

 

Can’t get your car registered? Stopped by Police? You are not alone.

According to the Associated Press, Minnesotan Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during an otherwise “routine” traffic stop, had been pulled over at least 52 times in recent years, in and around the Twin Cities, and cited for minor offenses. He had been assessed over $6500 in fines and fees, although many violations had been dismissed in court.

His tragic death is a stark and heartrending reminder of what can go horribly wrong when car drivers are pulled over by police. It should also raise serious, urgent questions about why some people are being pulled over at all.

Consumer and civil rights groups are raising alarms about a new law that was just enacted in California that will lead to many innocent people being pulled over by police, ticketed, having their cars impounded, and facing severe criminal sanctions. Why? Because car dealers failed to provide them with permanent license plates within the 90-day deadline for displaying permanent plates.

Governor Jerry Brown just signed the bill, AB 516, into law in the nation’s largest, most diverse state. It is now on track to take effect in January, 2019. So there is still time to change it before more innocent car buyers are harmed.

According to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, “LCCR recently published, in collaboration with other groups, a report entitled Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, which shows the many ways that low-income California drivers, and particularly communities of color, are impacted by unfair laws that result in license suspensions and hefty fines, and that lead people into an endless cycle of debt and court involvement from which they cannot extricate themselves. Rather than reverse this trend, AB 516 would contribute to it.”

Here’s why this obvious injustice keeps happening, and how AB 516 would make it worse:

Under California’s current law, car buyers who purchase new or used cars without permanent metal license plates, at a car dealership, pay the dealer $29 for an “electronic vehicle registration or transfer charge” plus an $80  “document processing charge” to handle the registration. Sometimes they pay an additional $100 or more for a “registration /transfer/titling fee.” Then they drive off the car lot with a document that is folded up and taped in the back window that shows the date of sale and other relevant information. The dealer is supposed to handle the registration, and send them the permanent plates, either directly or by hiring a company approved by the DMV.

Car buyers must install permanent plates as soon as they receive them, or within 90 days. There are no exceptions. The law says they have to put them on the car before the 91st day — even if they have not received them, through no fault of their own. No plates? Tough. Hapless car buyers still face being pulled over, ticketed, and having their car impounded.

The kicker: There is NO requirement for dealers to ensure that car buyers receive their permanent plates within the 90 days. Some dealers take advantage of this major loophole in the law to abuse the system and increase their profits. As a result, this scenario plays out all too often:

You pay good money to buy a car from a car dealer. You drive it home. You paid cash, or if you got a car loan, you are making the payments, in full and on time. Life is good. Until….

You are pulled over by the police. Why? Because the temporary registration has expired, and you have not received the permanent plates. Why not? Because the dealer failed to submit the registration documents to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As in, the dealer went out of business without paying the taxes he collected, or submitting documents to the DMV — some dealers do this to hundreds of people, then go belly up. OR —

  • The dealer entered the wrong Vehicle ID Number (VIN) into the system.
  • The dealer fired the person who handles vehicle registrations and hasn’t gotten around to hiring a replacement.
  • The dealer sold you a car that is registered in another state, which can take months to straighten out.
  • The dealer sold you a car with an unpaid lien, and the lender is demanding payment (which can run thousands of dollars) before it will release the title.
  • The dealer had the permanent plates sent to him, and not to you, so he can demand that you pay more, under threat of being pulled over again and again, and having your car impounded.
  • The DMV has a backlog in issuing permanent plates.
  • The DMV entered the wrong VIN.
  • Or — one of a myriad of other scenarios that are beyond your control.

None of that is your fault. You paid the fees for the dealer to properly register the car, when you bought it. It’s the dealer or the DMV who messed up. But who gets penalized? YOU.

According to consumer attorney Steven Simons, on July 19, 2014, Matthew Smith and his brother Luke bought a 2003 Acura for about $6900 (plus financing) from a dealership in Van Nuys, CA.  They paid the dealer the usual fees to handle the registration. But the dealer failed to follow through and do his job. Despite repeated attempts by the Smiths to get their car properly registered, and their fruitless attempts to get the DMV to assist them, to this day their Acura has not been properly registered, and they have not received their permanent plates. Meanwhile, police officers in several jurisdictions have repeatedly pulled Matthew over, including at gunpoint, and detained him for hours, searching him and his car.

Think this is wrong? We agree! Unfortunately, it’s going to get a lot worse, when AB 516 takes effect.

The author of AB 516 is Bay Area Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo). The most avid backers are toll authorities, who want temporary tags to be mandated, so they will rake in more revenue. Currently, they lose money when people who don’t have readily traceable plates drive through unattended toll booths without paying.

The other major backers are the car dealers. They keep pushing aggressively to shorten the amount of time car buyers have to install permanent plates, or face criminal penalties. California car buyers used to have 6 months to install permanent plates. Then in 2011, car dealers persuaded legislators to cut the time in half, to 90 days. Recently, car dealers tried to get lawmakers to slice the deadline in half again, to just 45 days. That bill has temporarily stalled, pending enactment of AB 516. But dealers are expected to bring it back.

The author claims that the first ticket you would get is supposedly just a “fix-it” ticket. So what’s the big deal?  Here’s the catch: you cannot fix it. Typically, people caught in this trap call the dealer and the DMV over and over again, file complaints, and even go in person and spend hours at the DMV and dealership waiting around, and pleading with them. What they discover is that getting the registration completed, so they can drive legally, is out of their hands. It is an exercise in extreme frustration.

Sometimes it takes over a year to get things straightened out. By then, many people are pulled over repeatedly and ticketed, and their cars are impounded. Even if they pay all the tickets and the hefty impound fees, they cannot get their cars back because they are not the registered owners.

What happens to many hard-working consumers when their cars are impounded? They often lose their only means of transportation to work, and their jobs. Then they default on the car loan. Guess who swoops in to take back the car? The dealer. Then he turns around and resells the same car, over and over again, making a profit each time. You, on the other hand, get stuck with no car, a repossession that harms your credit for at least 7 years, harassing phone calls from the lender demanding immediate payment of the remaining car loan, and no job.

The bottom line: the bill will play right into the hands of unscrupulous car dealers, who want customers to give up and default on car loans, because they can make bigger profits from reselling the cars, and trashing people’s lives. According to a major series of reports by Ken Bensinger at the Los Angeles Times, some dealers in California engage in the practice of “churning” cars — reselling the same car over and over again — as a regular business practice.

The bill would also make it easier for unscrupulous dealers to engage in an illegal practice known as “yo-yo” financing, which is very common, even among supposedly reputable car dealers. When dealers “yo-yo” a consumer, they sell them a car, hand them the keys, and encourage them drive it away. Weeks later, they reel them back in,  telling them the “financing fell through.” Then threaten to have the consumer arrested for driving with an expired registration, or to report the vehicle as “stolen.” They exploit the fear of criminal sanctions to extract a larger down payment, higher interest rate, or other terms more favorable to the dealer. They refuse to return the down payment or the traded-in vehicle, leaving car buyers over a barrel.

If AB 516 is enacted, dealers will be required to install temporary tags. Good idea. We are in favor of law enforcement agencies being able to properly identify the car and the car buyer. But — the temporary tags will be highly visible, and will have an expiration date that is easy to spot — and easy for a scanning device to pinpoint. Suddenly, people with expired temporary tags will become ridiculously easy to target. Enforcement of that 90-day deadline, which tends to be relatively spotty now, will skyrocket.

Here’s what will happen, only a vastly larger scale: In a village on Long Island, New York, “Since the scanners went live Nov. 2, they have been triggering an average of 700 alarms a day, mainly about cars on the road with expired or suspended registration stickers. Officers have impounded 500 vehicles. They’ve written more than 2,000 court summonses, mostly for minor violations.”

Plus — AB 516 would make altering even just the expiration date on a temporary tag a wobbler/ felony offense, subjecting car buyers to a potential prison sentence of 2-3 years. Imagine: you keep being pulled over by the police because you have not received your permanent plates. If you are detained one more time, making you late for work, you will lose your job. In your desperation you take a magic marker and change the expiration date. For this “horrible crime,” you will be at risk of having to do hard time in prison. Even though you have not altered the number of the temporary tag, and toll agencies and law enforcement can readily identify the car, for toll collection or public safety purposes.

Consumer groups and the California Police Officers Association worked together and drafted amendments to AB 516 that would have addressed these serious problems with the bill, and presented those to the author’s staff, at an in-person meeting. The amendments would have changed the bill so that:

  • When law enforcement officials detect that your car has a temporary tag with an expired date, they would have to check an existing law enforcement database, that they can already access electronically, to find out whether you were issued permanent plates. In a matter of seconds, they can tell. If the plates have not been sent to your address, you would not be issued a citation.
  • It would be an infraction, not a wobbler / felony, to alter just the expiration date on the temporary tag, leaving the rest of the tag unaltered and readily traceable.

The California Police Officers Association, to its credit, expressed the sentiment that its members are not overly eager to pull over and detain people who are already frustrated because they cannot get their permanent plates, so long as they properly display the temporary tags, and the car is readily identifiable for public safety purposes.

However, Assemblymember Mullin refused to accept those amendments. Instead, he added a “fig leaf” to the bill that would require consumers who have not received their permanent plates to prove their own innocence by obtaining a form from the DMV and showing it, if they are detained. That may sound easy, but in reality, it’s just another Catch-22. The form cited in the bill requires that you sign, under penalty of perjury, that you are the “registered owner of record.” But that’s the problem. You are not the registered owner. That is why you didn’t receive your permanent plates. Gotcha.

Read more — letters opposing  AB 516:

Courage Campaign

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety

Consumer Federation of California

California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney and Judge Pro-Tem Steven Simons

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney David Valdez

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Greg Babbitt

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Balam Latona

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area

Citizens United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)

Law firm of Kemnitzer, Barron & Krieg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are car dealers providing unsafe loaner cars to owners of recalled cars?

U.S. Senators, like Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, have been urging Honda and Toyota and their dealers to provide loaner cars to customers with faulty Takata air bags, while they wait for repair parts to become available. Sounds like a good idea, right?

But — new car dealers have been vehemently opposing attempts to stop them from loaning out cars that have the exact same safety defects, or different defects, that have triggered a federal safety recall.

So — if you turn in your recalled Honda or Toyota at a Honda or Toyota dealership, and they hand you the keys to a loaner car, is it guaranteed to be any safer? NO!!!!

Here’s video of lobbyists for the new car dealers and CarMax opposing legislation in California that would have prohibited them from renting, selling or loaning unsafe, recalled used cars to consumers:

Car dealer lobbyists oppose safety bill in California

 

 

One more reason NOT to buy a car from a car dealer

Even the auto dealers themselves have to admit:  many car buyers dread buying cars from auto dealers. Young people are especially wary.  And for good reason.

Car dealers keep selling unsafe, recalled used cars to consumers, putting them, their friends and family, and other motorists at risk of death or serious, debilitating injuries.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, they also insist that you surrender your Constitutional rights as part of the price of buying a car from them.

Good luck trying to buy a car from a dealer without a “gotcha” clause hidden in the contract that says you give up your Constitutional right to take them to court, and benefit from  our nation’s hard-won consumer protection laws. Like laws against rolling back odometers, selling “junk” cars that are advertised as being “in mint condition,” or engaging in other forms of cheating, lying, fraud, and thievery.

And get this:  the dealers got a special exemption from Congress — just for car dealers —  that allows them to keep THEIR Constitutional rights. So they can take anyone they want to court, and use the laws that benefit THEM. But they killed a bill that would have protected YOU from losing your rights when you sign on the dotted line to buy a car from them.

If you’re fed up with car dealers and their scams, check this out:

Cleveland Plain Dealer: Arbitration: What you don’t know about fine print can hurt you

And let your local car dealers know you’re not buying from them until they clean up their act, and you don’t have to surrender your rights to buy a car from them.