Is my car dealership lying to me? Here’s how to tell

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By Christopher Elliott

This is the best time of year to buy a car. September and October are model changeover season when the new model year cars arrive — and the old ones are discounted. Not coincidentally, it’s also when more people ask: Is my car dealership lying to me?

“Dishonesty can happen anywhere,” says car expert Lauren Fix. “The key to resolving these situations is to state the facts and try to remove the emotions, as hard as that may be.”

Customer trust of car dealerships has taken a slide lately. Only 61% of Americans believe their dealership gave them the best price, down from 65% in 2017, according to an annual survey by Cox Automotive. Nearly one-third of buyers are not satisfied with their auto purchase.

Let’s take a little road trip of the lies some car dealers tell. I’ll explain how to spot them and how to respond. So if you find yourself at a dealership looking for a new set of wheels this fall, no one will lead you down the wrong road.

I have a unique perspective on this problem. As a consumer advocate, I handle a fair amount of auto cases. Many motorists claim their car dealership lied to them when they purchased the vehicle.

And they’re not alone. This summer, the Federal Trade Commission charged a group of four auto dealers operating in Arizona and New Mexico with a range of illegal activities. They include falsifying consumers’ income and down payment information on vehicle financing applications and misrepresenting important financial terms in vehicle advertisements.

Last year, another car dealership, Cowboy Toyota and Cowboy Scion, agreed to settle FTC charges that it deceptively advertised loan and leasing terms in ads placed in a regional Spanish-language newspaper.

What kind of lies do dealers tell?

It’s important to note that most car dealerships are on the up-and-up. Few will lie to you outright. But they might try to mislead you to make a sale.

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I remember buying a Honda a few years ago, and the dealership conveniently forgot to mention a mandatory $675 “document” fee it excluded from the sticker price. It’s the highest fee of its kind in the country.

After that, I never trusted the sticker price again. I asked for the “out-the-door” price, a rate that includes all taxes and fees. Your dealership will calculate that for you. The dealership may not be happy about it, but you’ll have a much clearer picture of how much you’re going to pay. Plus, you’ll avoid a bait and switch maneuver.

Sonia Steinway, an attorney and co-founder of Outside Financial, which helps consumers understand auto financing options and connect them to lenders to get the right loan, says the lithe dealership lies are many.

  • The dealer tells you that you have to buy GAP or a Vehicle Service Contract or any other product to get financing. You don’t – those products are always optional.
  • The dealer tells you that you have to use its financing. Again, not true.
  • The dealer tells you “it doesn’t matter” what you put down for your income when you apply for a loan. It does matter.

Another sign of trouble:

The dealer tries to rush you through the paperwork without giving you time to review each document in full. Also, if you leave without signing a final copy of a contract, and a dealer offers to forge your signature, don’t walk from the purchase — run.

A quick online search can reveal if your dealership is giving it to you straight.

“The internet is your friend,” says Steinway. “Websites like Repair Pal and others offer pricing, service costs and more. The Car Care Counsel educates drivers on how and why things go wrong. The key is to be informed. Knowledge is power.”

When it comes to car pricing, the internet is also your friend. Sites like Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book offer accurate, vetted information about car prices. If a dealer tells you the sites aren’t accurate, you’ll need to decide who is telling the truth.

How do you know your car dealership is lying?

It’s not always easy to tell if you’re being lied to. To know, you need information.

For example, many dealers will imply that a clean Carfax report means a car has a clean record.

“But this is not necessarily true,” says Jake McKenzie, a manager for Auto Accessories Garage. “Unless the owner of the car made an insurance claim, any accidents or flooding would not show up on a Carfax report.”

Another trick: When a Carfax does not come back clean, dealers may tell you the system is “down.”

Yeah, right.

They are banking on the fact that most buyers are unlikely to check the Carfax at home,” says McKenzie.

What to do when a car dealership lies to you

If you catch a car dealership in the act of lying, you might be tempted to confront the salesperson or manager and extract a confession. But that shouldn’t be your first impulse. Instead, ask yourself: “If they’re lying about this, then what else are they lying about?”

Imagine yourself in a long-term relationship with that business. Maybe you cleared up that little lie about the car price, but picture yourself coming in for maintenance or a repair. If they bent a few facts about the price, what else will they try to fudge?

The point is, you don’t want to do business with a company that tells a little white lie because there are almost certainly even bigger ones that you haven’t yet discovered.

All of the experts I spoke with said you should head for the door when you catch a dealership in a lie. That’s particularly true of bald-faced lies, such as misstating your income on a credit application.

“If a dealer writes in a different income number than you’ve given them, or misstates the amount of down payment you agreed to put down, leave immediately and find a new dealership,” says Steinway, the attorney. “Never sign your name to a contract where you know the information is wrong. Not only is it illegal, but it could result in you owing way more than you can afford.”

The more cars I buy, the less tolerant I become of lies. If a dealership can’t give me an out-the-door price on a car, I walk. If they fudge a price, I walk. And if a salesperson tries to steer me to a more expensive model, I’m outta there.

And I can’t help thinking: If more of us refused to tolerate the lies, would the liars go out of business? I think you know the answer.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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