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5 Common Forms of Car Dealership Trickery, And How You Can Outsmart Them!

The unfortunate reality of buying a vehicle is you always need to be on your toes to spot potential scams. This is especially true when buying used cars. The truth is that the automobile industry has TONs of variables, of which some are gigantic and others are miniscule. Many of these variables can be manipulated to the advantage of the dealership.

Now, it’s important to note that not all car dealerships are out to give the buyer the short end of the stick. Some of the smaller details can be missed by even the most professional salespeople.

On the other hand, there are certainly a great deal of dealers who go out of their way to maximize profits at the expense of customers. Here are five of the most common forms of dealership trickery to watch out for.

1. Selling “Certified” Lemons

This is a very common form of auto dealership fraud, especially in big cities. As a lemon law attorney in San Diego, we see people unknowingly buy lemon buybacks all the time. Even if a vehicle is sold as a “Certified Used Car,” there can still be a slew of problems that end up costing you big time.

Always remember, shady dealerships prey on inexperienced car buyers not doing their due diligence. As a consumer, it’s up to you to do your research before pulling out your wallet. Before you buy any vehicle, be sure to look up the history report. Thankfully, websites like Carfax make this super easy (and free). This report will be able to tell you whether the vehicle was deemed a lemon, along with a wide range of other service information.

2. Odometer Meddling

This practice is pretty straightforward: the dealership cranks back the number of miles accrued on the odometer to sell the vehicle at a higher price. Collectively, this scam costs American car buyers more than $1 billion each year - per a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Messing with the odometer is a car dealership scam that has stood the test of time. In the old days, this would commonly involve pulling out the vehicle’s odometer and cranking the numbers back by hand. Nowadays, being as how most vehicles have digital displays, scammers can buy cheap software to hack into the vehicle’s system and recalibrate the odometer reading!

This is another form of trickery where Carfax comes to the rescue. Look at the documents provided by the dealer, as well as the odometer reading. Then compare it to the number found on the Carfax odometer fraud check by entering in the VIN.

3. Markup on Extras

Many dealers will try to sell you a multitude of unnecessary add-ons. Moreover, they will often charge an outrageous price. This happens quite a bit when you lease a vehicle.

To give you an example, a dealer might try to upsell you on fabric protector. In reality, this protector may very well be a spray they bought at Walmart for a few bucks. Other common extras you may encounter include undercoating, pin striping, VIN etching, all-season floor mats, window tinting, cargo trays, etc.

While some add-ons are certainly practical, you can get them for much cheaper outside of the dealership.

4. Overestimation of Trade-in Value

Dealers typically approach the selling process knowing that customers plan on getting a big amount of the sticker price knocked down by trading in their old vehicle. Unfortunately, this can create a TON of leverage for sketchy salespeople.

If you have a cheaper/older car, some dealerships will advertise a minimum trade-in value, regardless of what the vehicle is worth. Some might try to give you the Kelly Blue Book value and convince you that it’s a favorable offer. Or, they might flat-out give you an overly generous number that is way more than what your vehicle is worth.

Regardless of the scenario, the customer doesn’t know that the sketchy dealer is going to add in the difference between the actual trade-in value and the price they give you for the new vehicle. For example, if your real trade-in value is $3,000 and they offer you $4,000, you need to be wary of them adding $1,000 to the new vehicle’s price tag.

To avoid this scam, go to a vendor beforehand and get the accurate trade-in value. If the dealership offers you significantly more than that number, there is a good chance they are trying to scam you.

5. Not Disclosing Previous Rental Car Status

Selling previous rental cars is a scam that is seen all too often. Rental cars are driven all over the place by many different drivers. Being as how it is a borrowed car, most drivers don’t treat it as diligently as they do their own. In turn, the cars can have all kinds of problems later on.

In most states, dealerships are required by law to disclose that a vehicle they are selling was once a rental. However, this doesn’t always happen. Dealerships can buy retired rental cars from auctions for dirt cheap.

Then, they can sell them for a huge profit to unsuspecting or inexperience car buyers.

Again, this is where you need to do your research on the vehicle’s history with sites like Carfax and AutoCheck.


Car dealership scams happen all the time. Do yourself a favor and keep these tips in mind as you shop for a new/used vehicle.

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