“check engine” light woes

You’re a smart consumer. So before you buy that used car, you take it for a test drive.  You notice that there are no warning lights on the dashboard. You think everything is fine, and you buy the car.

But — shortly after you drive it home, the “check engine” light comes on. This spells trouble. BIG trouble. This scenario is playing out all over the country. It’s become a frequent complaint among used car buyers. “I just bought it and now the ‘check engine’ light is on.”  Adding to the woes experienced by consumers who are victims of “check engine-itis” — the repairs to get that pesky light to go off can cost $3,000 — $4,000 or more.

Margie Y of Hawthorne, CA contacted CARS and said she bought a used Toyota for her daughter, as a present for her 21st birthday, from a local dealership. Within a day, the “check engine” light came on. Then the alternator blew up, and the car caught on fire. When she had the partly charred Toyota towed to a mechanic, he said it needed a new alternator, catalytic converter, and solenoid — at an estimated cost of over $2400.  Money she didn’t have, since she had paid $6200 cash for the Flaming Toyota, and also traded in a vehicle that was running fine, plus had paid $300 for the tow.

Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar. So — what’s happening?  According to automotive experts, unscrupulous dealers buy “scan tools” over the internet that allow them to simply wipe out the error codes that trigger the “check engine” light. Then they sell the car.  As soon as it’s driven a short distance, the error codes register and — on goes the dashboard warning light.  Some dealers don’t bother to buy the scan tools. They just disconnect the battery, erasing the error codes and getting the “check engine” light to go off just long enough to foist the car off onto an unsuspecting used car buyer.

Not only are the dealers cheating their customers, they’re also falsifying smog test results and polluting the air. They know that chances are good their customers won’t be able to pay for the expensive repairs, and will end up driving the car despite the fact it doesn’t meet emissions standards.  The day of reckoning may come when the hapless consumer tries to register it, and it won’t pass the smog test. But by then, the dealer figures it will be too late for the consumer to take them to court.

What can you do to avoid becoming a victim of “check engine-itis”?  The most effective single thing you can do is to insist on getting your own trusted mechanic to inspect the car before you buy. They should be able to detect the fact the error codes have been wiped clean, and also do a check of the emissions system that will turn up the problems.  Where can you find a good, reliable mechanic?  Car Talk’s Mechanics Files is a terrific resource, where you can find the best mechanics in your area, based on reviews written by their own customers.

Check Car Talk’s Mechanics Files to find a reliable mechanic — before you buy

Tell the seller that you want them to take the car to YOUR mechanic before you’ll agree to buy.  If they balk at that, or try to talk you out of it, well, that’s why God gave you feet — so you can walk away from there. Pronto.  There are plenty of good used cars for sale.You don’t need to get stuck with one that will cause you hassles and headaches.

Federal Trade Commission — private car sellers often give “more reliable information” than auto dealers

We now have an official answer to the age-old question: Are you more likely to be misled if you buy a car from a private individual or from a used car dealer? Obviously, dealers want you to buy from them — and these days, they are boasting about their record profits.

But — auto sales remain the leading cause of consumer complaints to state and local consumer protection agencies. Year after year, new and used car dealers also rank #1 among the most-complained about businesses, in terms of consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau.

To top it all off, the leading federal consumer protection agency for America’s car buyers recently stated flat-out that you’re more likely to get accurate information about a used car’s history when you buy a car from another consumer, rather than a used car dealer.

Here’s what the Federal Trade Commission stated:

“The Commission concluded that the [Used Car] Rule should not extend to private or casual sellers of used cars because the record failed to support a finding that deceptive sales practices were prevalent in private sales. The Commission noted that in private sales, prospective customers often receive more reliable information about mechanical condition than they do from dealers…” **

    ** Federal Register, Vol. 77, No. 242, Dec. 17, 2012, pages 74761-74762.

Of course, you still have to be on the lookout for “curbstoners” — dealers masquerading as consumers. Be sure to insist on seeing the title and registration, and past work orders from repairs, and make sure that the names on the documents match the seller’s name.

And ALWAYS, ALWAYS insist on getting the car inspected by an independent, reliable, trustworthy mechanic / body shop of YOUR choosing, before you buy. A good place to find an expert to perform the inspection? Car Talk’s Mechanics Files.

It’s a good idea to also check the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System and other vehicle history services before you buy. The more you know, the better. NEVER trust a car dealer to tell you the truth about a car.

Twelve tips for consumers on how to buy a safe, reliable used car — without being cheated by a shady car dealer:

CARS’ Twelve Tips for Used Car Buyers

Happy, safe car buying and Happy New Year!

Buyer Beware: Auto dealers selling unsafe, recalled cars — without fixing them first

One of the reasons many car buyers purchase used cars from an auto dealer is to get a car that they think is safer. But are they really safe? Not necessarily. Each year, millions of used cars are sold, without the safety recall work being done. Many are being sold by so-called “reputable” auto dealers.

The harsh reality — dealers are prohibited from selling NEW cars that are under a safety recall, but are exploiting a loophole in federal law that allows them to sell USED cars that are under a safety recall, without fixing them first.

Their excuse? They don’t want to bother to take them out of service as loaner cars, or to another dealer, for FREE repairs. After all, that might cut into their profits or be inconvenient.

Never mind the fact they are putting their customers’ lives in jeopardy. And also creating a hazard for other motorists who share the road with the unsafe, recalled cars. This excuse is especially lame, since the repairs are FREE.  By federal  law, the auto manufacturers must pay for the repairs, in full.

According to a report issued by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, car dealers’ sales of unrepaired, recalled cars is a serious problem that urgently needs to be addressed.

In the wake of the Toyota recall scandal, and in reaction to the GAO report, Congress attempted to require auto dealers to fix recalled used cars before selling them to the public. But under pressure from the powerful auto dealer lobby, that provision was stripped from the national auto safety bill that finally passed.

Tragically, unsafe, recalled cars continue to put unsuspecting car buyers and their families at risk. One investigation by highly respected consumer reporter Joe Ducey, Channel 15 in Arizona found dozens of recalled cars for sale on the lots of major auto dealers:

Cars with unrepaired safety recall issues sold from Valley car lots

Don’t fall prey to this dangerous scam. Be aware you can’t rely on auto dealers not to sell or rent an unsafe, recalled car. In fact, the powerful auto dealer lobby is actively pushing in Congress to keep on putting their customers’ lives in jeopardy. So far, they have prevailed.

Were you sold an unsafe, recalled car by a dealer? If so, CARS wants to hear from you. The only way this reckless policy will stop is when people like you speak up and the truth gets out.

Contact CARS

Meanwhile, here are 11 top tips from CARS, for how to buy a safe, reliable used car — without even having to step foot on a car dealer’s lot:

How to buy a safe, reliable used car — without getting ripped off


Avoid GAP insurance rip-offs

If you’re buying a car from a dealership, resist high-pressure tactics aimed at getting you to buy “GAP” insurance. What the finance manager doesn’t tell you is that auto dealers make a lot of profits from the sales of GAP, or “Guaranteed Asset Protection” policies.

Dealers hike up the price, and add it onto your loan, where it can cost you $1000 or more extra, over the life of the loan. Some charge double or triple what you would pay if you bought GAP separately from a reputable insurance company. Finance managers are usually paid an extra bonus based on how many GAP products they sell. So they have a personal financial incentive to pressure you.

The purpose of GAP is to cover you if your car is stolen or totaled before you pay off the loan. The “GAP” is between the amount of the loan and the worth of the car. If there’s a large difference, it’s a sign you’re paying too much for the car.

It’s better to get a less expensive car, or wait until you can pay more of a down-payment and get a shorter loan, or pay cash, instead of paying extra for GAP.

If you do decide you want GAP coverage, shop around and avoid buying it at the dealership. Why?

One major pitfall to buying GAP at dealerships: many dealers collect the GAP payment, but pocket it themselves, and fail to activate the policy. Some dealers have been arrested and prosecuted for this scam, but even then, their victims were not able to recover their losses.

As a result, consumers who paid for GAP, and believed they were protected, got a rude awakening when their car was stolen, or totaled. When they contacted the insurer that was supposed to pay their claim, they found out they weren’t covered. Suddenly they had no car, and still had to pay thousands extra for the difference between the amount of the loan and what they collected from their auto insurer.

Another problem with buying “GAP” from dealers — often, the policies they sell have loopholes that exclude coverage, in the fine print. So consumers end up paying extra for worthless GAP policies that leave them unprotected.

Bottom line: either don’t buy GAP, or get your own coverage directly from a reputable insurer. Many offer GAP polices, and it pays to shop around.