Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.

November 03, 2015   |   Ruth Sheehan

Recently, our firm got a call from a feisty older lady who didn’t ask for a meeting – she demanded one. She had purchased a car a few months earlier and had come to believe she’d been ripped off.

And she was right. She had been ripped off. There was just one problem – it probably wasn’t illegal.

Our client, Ms. D, had gone car shopping in early May, after her old Toyota Camry breathed its last and could not be resuscitated.

Ms. D and her husband had seen ads for a car place not far from their home and went car-shopping on a Saturday afternoon.  By early evening, they had signed the papers on a 2006 Ford Taurus with 120,000 miles on it.

The price tag? Get ready for it.    Including their down payment, advance payments and the trade-in of the Camry, they were on the hook for more than $12,500, financed at an astonishing 19.49 percent interest rate.   The Blue Book value for the car: $4,000.

Ms. D said she and her husband returned to the dealership the following Monday to pick up the car and discovered their signatures from the previous Saturday had been notarized by a woman they had never met. She had a sinking feeling she’d made a big mistake.

Lucky for Ms. D, the owner of this particular dealership is not a complete charlatan. He explained that he frontloads the value of the cars he sells to make up for the incredibly high default rate of his customers. He charges everyone the 19.49 percent interest rate. But he provides super cheap maintenance and repairs to his buyers (let’s face it: to keep the cars running for the full life of the loans.)  Basically, he maintains, he is providing a service to people who would not otherwise qualify for a car loan at all.

We could argue over his largesse all day long. But technically, what he was doing wasn’t illegal.  Our client, Ms. D, wasn’t the dealership’s typical buyer. She and her husband had gone through a bankruptcy many years earlier but otherwise had pretty good, if limited, credit.

After I contacted him, this dealer agreed to unwind the deal with our client, returning her money and removing the purchase from her future credit reports.

Ms. D took the cash and put a down payment on a 2012 Honda, and the credit union gave her a loan for the rest at 4.5 percent.   A happy ending to be sure. But a reminder too: When something doesn’t seem right, stop and listen to that voice. Check it out. Shop around.  And always, always remember: Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.

Blog post author Ruth Sheehan is an Associate Attorney at The Francis Law Firm, PLLC in Raleigh, NC and a former reporter and metro columnist for The News & Observer.