What to Do If You’re Scammed by Car Dealership

Written by Ray Shefska

My career in the retail automotive business started in 1977. Buying a car doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing, stressful, or painful. Instead it can be confidence inspiring, fun, and convenient. Let me show you how.

February 13, 2020

It’s always upsetting to learn that someone’s overcharged you for something. When I was asked the question “What can you do if you’re scammed by a car dealership? ” By one of our readers, I knew I had to answer it.

Legitimately, if you’ve signed all the documents, completed your purchase, and driven your new car home, legally, in most jurisdictions, there isn’t much of anything you can do. In the eyes of the law, you’re the owner of that car. That doesn’t mean there aren’t practical steps you can take to try and resolve the issue, however.

If you feel that may have been taken advantage of, overcharged, or outright scammed, here’s the steps I would recommend you take.

Talk to dealership management

Once you’ve realized something fishy happened, you may want to immediately call your salesperson. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Or, at least if you do call your salesperson, only do it to get through to the sales manager. The salesperson isn’t going to be able to do anything to help resolve this issue, and they probably won’t want to if they did something nefarious.

When you do get through to a manager, the first thing you should try and do is appeal to them to “do the right thing.” You’ll want to talk to the sales manager, or better yet, the general manager (GM).

Don’t threaten, scream, or yell at the GM. In my 42 years in the car business, rarely did I see this tactic pay off. Car people are real people, just like you and me. They have families, and friends, and they can be swayed to help people in need. You’re that person in need, and we can convince them to help you.

Start out by approaching them as a human being and appeal to them on a human level. Ask them to do what is morally right. You might frame it exactly like that by saying something along the lines of, “Rarely in life can we make a wrong right, but now is one of those opportunities.” If you were legitimately scammed by a dealer, this tactic should work.

Be prepared to explain what the issue is and provide what you think would be a fair solution. The last part is critical. Come prepared with what you think would be a fair resolution to the problem. When you tell the GM what they need to do to “make things right,” the GM hears, “Great, I can resolve this problem, save the customer, and maybe even look like a hero.”

By providing a solution, you are showing the GM good faith. This will encourage the necessary conversation that will ultimately lead to an acceptable resolution for everyone involved.

My experience has shown that this type of approach usually leads to a reasonable resolution. Personally, and during my 42+ year career in the car business, I am (and always was) more inclined to help a friendly person solve a problem than a screaming, threatening person.

Do you ever wonder how much car dealers mark up used cars? You might enjoy this article if you haven’t read it already: How Much Do Dealers Markup Used Cars?

Talk to dealership ownership

If presenting your issue to the general manager doesn’t resolve the problem, your next best bet would be to contact the managing partner, dealer principal, area vice president or the owner of the dealership.

I can tell you from experience that if I couldn’t resolve a customer issue at my level (sales manager and general manager), and it made it up the ladder to someone of greater authority, they were going to do whatever they had to do to make the problem go away. I don’t mean this in a nasty way, rather it is to say that the managing partner, dealer principal, area vice president, or owner is too busy with other things to really want to deal with you. Use that to your advantage!

When I worked for the Penske organization, we had a regional VP that always reminded us that if a customer issue ever reached him, he would do whatever he had to do to make the customer happy (regardless of cost). His advice to us (his managers) was to simply handle the issue at our level so he wouldn’t have to.

With that being said, if you were overcharged on your new car, and you weren’t able to resolve the issue with the general manager, do your best to talk to the next level of authority. They’re likely to do whatever it takes to “make the problem go away,” and considering you want a fair resolution, this is one way to get it. At most dealerships you can identify this person on their website. If you can’t, call the receptionist and ask.

Legal and regulatory options

What if “talking it out” doesn’t work? Do you still have options if you were scammed, overcharged, or taken-advantage of by a car dealership? The answer is yes.

You can contact the Better Business Bureau, your state’s Consumer Protection Office, or even the Attorney General’s office. These three options could be time consuming, however the Better Business Bureau would try to broker a resolution in a more timely manner than the other two would.

The Office of Consumer Protection and the Attorney General’s office generally want to see a pattern of abuse by a dealership before taking action. You may need to wait years for enough complaints to be filed against a dealer before one of these agencies will do anything. This is frustrating, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Leverage social media

The court of last resort, so to speak, is social media. There are any number of sites where you can post a review of the dealership and share your experience. Once again, do it in a respectful manner, no name calling, no shouting, no threats, as Sergeant Joe Friday from the old TV show Dragnet would say,  “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”

DealerRater is a popular review website. You can even find reviews of me on there!

Although it may feel “good” to write out a diatribe, do your best to be succinct and factual in your online review. This will more than likely elicit a positive response from the dealer management, and it surely will garner more of an appetite to “make the situation right” than something long-winded and over the top. Dealers want to protect their online reputation, because for a lot of them, that is how they find and retain customers. This means they’ll usually want to make amends for their wrongdoing to encourage a more positive review from you. 

So what should you do if you’re scammed by a car dealership? Whether be an overcharge, a bait and switch, or something in between, realize that you might not have legal standing for your issue, but you do have options as to how to address it. From my experience, these are the avenues I suggest you travel if you ever find yourself feeling taken advantage of at a car dealership.

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