Car dealership fraud: 9 Ways to avoid these shady practices

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Susan Meyer

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Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

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  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Buyer beware (or at least be aware)

Shopping for a new (or new-to-you) car can be exciting…or downright frustrating. Unless you’re looking to buy online, chances are you’ll be visiting several local dealerships to find the best car to suit your needs, wants, and budget.

Many car dealerships know how to treat customers with respect and decency. Others, however, employ downright shady tactics to make a sale – ethics be damned. Learning how to recognize these shady behaviors will save you time and money, and generally make the car-buying process the smooth and exciting experience it should be.

Car dealership horror stories

Sold! (but not to you)

During his car search, Sean Coffey found a Honda Accord at a local dealership in Berkeley, California. As every car buyer should do (but often doesn’t), Coffey elected to have a pre-purchase inspection done before signing on the dotted line.[1]

The inspection cost Coffey $75 (which is slightly below the average cost of car inspections), but while the process was underway, the dealership sold the car out from underneath him.[2]

Coffey claims his “salesman was apologetic, but it sounded like the manager did it, and was par for the course with his approach.” After all, why wait and see what the inspection would uncover when another customer was willing to buy the car as-is?

Coffey’s recommends would-be car buyers write out a contract to buy the car contingent on it passing a pre-purchase inspection or not requiring repairs over a specific cost. “That way,” he says, “if there are bigger expenses, you can either walk away or renegotiate the price.”

Mileage mayhem

When Michael Silva decided to sell his truck, he started to reach out to local dealerships, only to be offered significantly less than what he owed on it because the Carfax report flagged it as having incorrect mileage.[3]

At some point, the recorded mileage had gone from 100,000 to 61,000, and there were changes in the truck's odometer readings after maintenance reports that had been submitted in Virginia. The truck itself was registered and had been maintained in Nevada, which added to the suspicion. 

After Silva reached out to a local television station for help, Carfax was enlisted to help research and correct the situation. A representative from Carfax explained that if a correction to a record is warranted, it can take from a few days to a month or more to fix the errors. Carfax has millions of records, so reviewing situations and making corrections aren't quick processes. 

Eventually, the Virginia records were removed from the truck's history and Silva was able to get the expected trade-in value of the vehicle - but not without a lot of stress and time that could've been saved if these errors hadn't happened. 

Although most dealerships and auto shops report their records to Carfax, if a private party is maintaining their own vehicle, often things will get missed or unreported completely. It's also easy to mix up one digit on a VIN simply because the numbers are so long and similar. If something seems amiss on a Carfax report, you can request a review, but be prepared to practice your patience while things get sorted out.[4]

Keys, please

Kirk Herzog visited a local dealership in Van Nuys, California, and was greeted by a kind employee who asked him about his trade-in. Herzog handed his keys over so the staff could take a look at the vehicle and provide him with an estimate of its value.

While he waited, a salesman showed Herzog what cars were for sale, all of which were out of his price range, even after being told the estimate of his trade-in. The salesman ignored Herzog’s budget and continued showing him cars out of his price range.

“I told him that since he was trying to sell me what he wanted me to buy and not what I wanted to buy, that I wanted to leave,” Herzog says of the experience. The dealership again ignored him, refusing to give him his keys back as salesman after salesman walked over, trying to pressure Herzog into making a purchase not within his budget.

Finally, Herzog demanded his keys back and “ran out.” If you’re in the market for a new car, “Never, ever give them your keys,” he says.

Cash or GTFO

After someone crashed into him and totaled his truck, Dan Mattia was in the market for a new used car. Though Dan had a small bit of cash thanks to his insurance payout, Dan still needed to finance any purchase.

Dan went to a local car lot, desperate for a cheap car to get him back and forth to work. The place looked like the perfect setting for a crime film – dimly lit and unwelcoming. Still, he wanted to consider all his options.

The inside of the dealership’s small office was cold and uninviting, and no one seemed interested that Dan was there. After finally getting someone’s attention, Dan was told that the dealer only sold cars to customers who could buy a car in cash right then and there.

While they very well may have been running a legitimate business, something seemed off about the situation, and he followed his gut and soon left.

9 Tips to Spare Your Sanity from Shady Car Salespeople

Dealing with a shady dealership may be frustrating, but it’s not impossible – and you may very well walk away with exactly the deal you wanted, especially if you show up prepared.

1. Have a trusted mechanic inspect the vehicle

Have a car inspected by a mechanic you know and trust to check that the vehicle doesn’t require expensive repairs. An inspection “will also address any aftermarket illegal modifications such as illegal window tint or exhaust,” says Matt Pinsker, a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army Reserves, adjunct professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, practicing traffic defense attorney, and former prosecutor. “This can save you a lot of money on legal fees down the road.”

2. Do your own research

Even if a dealership isn’t out to cheat you, a Carfax report you’re handed may be out-of-date or otherwise inaccurate.[5] Show up to the dealership with a solid idea of the fair market price of your trade-in and any vehicles you’re considering buying.[6] Shop around, too! One dealer’s markup may be substantially higher than another’s.

3. Check the VIN

Ask your local police station to verify a car’s VIN, or vehicle identification number, to ensure it matches the vehicle you’re planning on looking at – and that it’s not stolen property. The VIN will be displayed in numerous locations on the car, too; Pinsker recommends making sure the number is the same in each location. (If it’s not, that’s a sign that the car is using parts from another of the same model and likely had extensive bodywork done.)

4. Don’t negotiate by monthly payment

Instead, Pinsker says to negotiate the “out-the-door price which includes the fees, licensing, taxes, etc.” This will prevent the dealer from adding any hidden expenses afterward. If you’re trading in your current vehicle, include its estimate in your negotiations, but “walk into the dealership with a print-out of the vehicle’s Kelley Blue Book or National Automobile Dealers Association value in your pocket, as well as any other comparable offers of the vehicle elsewhere.”

5. Prearrange your financing

Car dealerships generally earn a commission for helping you finance a car purchase, so it’s often a good idea to show up to a dealership armed with a written pre-approved loan from a trusted lender.[7] Not only will it serve as a point of comparison with the dealership’s financing options, but, if the loan’s agreeable enough, you won’t have to pay the dealership’s finance reserve.

Some unscrupulous dealerships will demand you pay extra for financing a vehicle through other means. If this happens, “walk away immediately,” says John Mavrianos, co-founder of, a used car inspection service. If you do finance through the dealership, Mavrianos warns, “There are many small tricks shady dealers use to increase the money they make on financing so always double-check all the numbers on your contract.”

6. Bring a friend

Pinsker recommends bringing a friend or family member along with you to a dealership to discourage a salesman from pressuring you too much. The extra set of eyes and ears can also serve to point out any flaws in a deal or vehicle.

7. Hold those keys tight

Dealers will often make excuses to ask for your keys and will be reluctant to give them back until you’ve made a purchase. According to Pinsker, the shadiest of them will “misplace” your keys for a while, until you’ve either purchased a car or, like Herzog, had enough.

The record wait before one of Pinsker’s clients could get his keys back from an unscrupulous dealer? Two and a half hours before the keys were “found.”

8. Get everything in writing

Pinsker seconds Coffey’s recommendation to get any agreements in writing, from purchase contracts pending a satisfactory inspection to agreements that any necessary repairs be done before signing. Pinsker cites the perfect example for establishing a paper trail: “The dealer promised to take care of a scratch in the paint, but after the car was purchased, refused to do so unless paid $250 while simultaneously telling the buyer that normally he charges $350, and was giving my client a special.”

Document. Everything. (It’ll save you frustration and money in the long run.)

9. The ultimate trick to overcoming a shady car dealership: walking

Remember that the dealer can’t make a sale unless you permit it. Knowing when to walk away keeps all of the power in your hands during the car buying process, so if at any time you feel uncomfortable with the way a negotiation or conversation is going, start walking.

Demonstrating your willingness to walk away will give you the leverage to get the deal you want – whether it’s a lower price or the dealer agreeing to make repairs before you sign on the dotted line – or it’ll just get you away from a bad situation altogether.

  1. Inspect that used car before buying. Edmunds

  2. How much does a car inspection cost? VEHQ

  3. Odometer rollback is on the rise. Carfax

  4. Glendale man shocked to learn Carfax misreported his truck's odometer mileage. AZ Family

  5. How reliable is Carfax? CarEdge

  6. How to determine the fair market value of a car. It Still Runs

  7. My son, the car salesman. Forbes