When the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) issued its list of most-reported consumer complaints a year ago, automobiles stood right at the top. Well, cars are Number One again, on the 2011 Consumer Complaints Report, issued on July 31, 2012. As before, too, credit/debt complaints are second on the list.
This year’s report represents complaints received by 37 state, local, and city agencies that handle consumer-related issues, in 22 states. Altogether, those agencies dealt with more than 289,000 complaints in 2011.
Though some complaints described this year are relatively new, those involving automobiles cover issues that have been around for years—Indeed, for decades. Specifically, CFA points to “misrepresentation in advertising or sales of new and used cars,” along with complaints about faulty repairs, leasing, and towing disputes.
Allegations of misrepresentation by auto dealers—or by any individual selling a vehicle—have been an integral part of the car culture since the early days of the automobile. Back in 1958, in his hilarious—yet serious—book, The Insolent Chariots, author John Keats provided some particularly colorful descriptions of the “anything goes” mentality that prevailed at car dealerships.
Two laws helped pave the way for improvement. Passage of the Automobile Information Disclosure Act in 1958 mandated display of a new vehicle’s suggested retail price. In 1986, the Federal Truth in Mileage Act aimed to curtail odometer rollbacks on used cars.
Auto-dealer abuses never stopped, but they did diminish appreciably. Today’s typical dealer is far less likely to resort to shady tactics than his predecessors. Still, some “bad apples” do remain. Furthermore, despite all the buying information available online nowadays, consumers are not necessarily as well informed as they may think.
Car-shoppers also may have unrealistic expectations, as suggested by several examples in the CFA report. In one case, a buyer of a $2,000 used car with 183,000 miles on it complained because it broke down and the dealer failed to repair it properly. CFA laments that in this particular state, “dealers are not required to provide warranties for cars with more than 125,000 miles.” Sorry, but dealers in most places aren’t obligated to provide a warranty; and few, if any, would do so for a car with that many miles on the odometer.
In another case, a direct-mail ad allegedly promised that the recipient would get 100 percent of his old car’s original Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) as a trade-in on a new model. Down in the fine print was a formula, which calculated that the complainant’s decade-old trade-in was worth zero, not full original price. Should anyone really expect that an elderly trade-in would be valued at its original cost?
Like many consumer advocates, CFA warns that shoppers should never pay full retail price for a car. But in reality, some new models do command that figure—or close to it. More beneficial are two of CFA’s other recommendations:
- Don’t accept a car unless you’re also given all the paperwork involved in the transaction.
- Be wary of buying a car online, sight unseen, either directly or through a service such as Craigslist.
Perhaps most helpful of all is CFA’s recommendation that a consumer-education class be required of all high school students.