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5 common car loan scams to avoid
Stay away from these red flags and what to do if you've been duped.
There are plenty of reputable dealers out there that want to make a profit but still care about their customers — and then there are those who are simply trying to make a quick buck at the customer’s expense. You’ve likely heard about car buying scams in the past, but how do you spot and avoid them?
5 common car loan scams and how to avoid them
Scams can be run by dealers or by independent lenders. They can be as simple as bad terms or complex like charging too much in fees — issues addressed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Here are the top five you should keep an eye out for.
1. Yo-yo financing scam
Spot financing is a tactic used by many dealers to get you into a new car and off the lot the same day you walk in — whether your loan is approved or not. If the dealer can’t sell your loan off for a profit, you’ll be informed that the financing has fallen through. You’ll either need to renegotiate your terms or return the car.
If you’ve settled on a monthly payment plan of $250, the dealer may call you up after a week and tell you that you’ll need to pay $350 in order to get financed, otherwise your new car will be repossessed. The dealer might claim that it’s already sold your trade in or it will call the police if the car isn’t returned immediately.
- How to avoid it: Before you visit a dealership, get approved for financing. This means you’ll already be approved and won’t need to rely on dealership loans. And once you’re at the dealership, look for language in your contract that says your loan is subject to approval. A dealer shouldn’t allow you to drive off the lot until it knows you’ll be able to pay.
2. Guaranteed approval
As with other types of loans, there’s no such thing as guaranteed approval, but many dealers will use this to get buyers on the lot. They’ll run your credit, and chances are you’ll be approved — for outrageous terms.
Why do dealers run this scam? There’s a chance that a buyer has decent credit for a loan at a moderate, yet affordable rate. And some borrowers may need a car regardless of the terms they’re offered.
- How to avoid it: Steer clear of any dealership that offers a guaranteed approval.
3. Upfront fees
No matter if you get your financing through a dealer or an independent lender, upfront fees are a bad sign. Lenders may encourage or coerce borrowers to pay a fee before the application is processed or before the funds are distributed. Don’t be fooled — this is an attempt to get you to pay, regardless if you get the loan or not.
Upfront fee scams typically happen online where you can get lured into paying the fee and then never hear from the lender again.
- How to avoid it: Cease contact and report any lender that asks for fees upfront. Reputable lenders won’t ask for any fees before you sign a contract.
4. Packing payments
Some call it a scam, some may just see it as a dealer trying to rip you off, but either way, packing payments change the price you pay for your loan.
A dealer encourages a buyer to focus on the monthly payment, not the total cost of the vehicle, and then packs on unnecessary extras that only change the monthly payment by $10 or $20. Over the life of a multi-year loan, however, that $10 or $20 becomes thousands of dollars.
- How to avoid it: Keep the focus on the price of the car, not how much you’re paying per month. Keep this in mind, and the salesperson will have no room to tack on extras.
5. Loan modification scams
A loan modification scam happens after a buyer takes out a loan and struggles to make payments. Seeking relief, you may turn to businesses that claim to negotiate with the lender for a small upfront fee, usually a few hundred dollars.
As with most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. According to the FTC, victims of loan modification scams are often told to stop making payments to their lender because the loan modification company is going to take care of negotiations. This never happens, and the victim can’t get in contact with the company after paying for the service.
- How to avoid it: Stay away from companies that claim to modify your loan. If you’re struggling with payments, contact your lender directly and explain your situation. Many are willing to defer payments or extend your loan term.
Car buying scams sometimes work a lot like mortgage scams
If you’re also on the market for a home, keep these scams in mind. Loan modification scams are particularly common with mortgages as well, according to the FTC. Whether you’re buying a car or a home, be wary of advanced fees
More common car buying tactics to avoid
Although not technically considered scams, some tactics dealers use can cheat you out of your money.
- Lowballing the value of your trade-in. Dealers are trying to make a profit, but that doesn’t mean you should settle for a bad offer. You can visit multiple dealers to see what they’ll pay for your old car so you can be sure the dealer you choose is giving you a good price.
- Hiding problems that could cost you down the road. Some disreputable dealers will attempt to hide problems to sell you the car at a higher price. Have your purchase dependent on an inspection by a mechanic to avoid being fooled by a good paint job.
- Title washing. Some dealers transport cars with a salvage title to a different state that doesn’t recognize that brand. You can make sure that your used car isn’t worthless by looking at its record online.
- Implying your credit score is low. A dealer may try to tell you your credit score is lower than it actually is in an attempt to offer you a high interest rate. Check your credit before you visit a dealership so you know where you stand financially.
How can I avoid a car buying scam?
A reliable way to avoid being scammed or ripped off by a dealer is to arrange your own financing and to know your credit score.
- Arrange your financing. Browse our guide on car loans before visiting a dealership to get your financing in order — it gives you more negotiating power and could help you lower the cost of your purchase.
- Know your credit score. Your credit score will influence how much a lender will let you borrow and the interest rate it’s willing to give you. Checking your credit score before buying a car will help you avoid dealers trying to offer you a bad loan.
How do I know if I’ve the victim of a scam?
You might be a victim of a scam in one of the following situations:
- You’re paying more than you were told. If your original loan documents don’t match up with what you’re being charged, you could be a victim of a scam.
- You paid for something you didn’t receive. Another common sign you’re being scammed is if you paid for a service or product upfront before the lender all but vanished.
- You’re being threatened. Lenders that threaten you with a lawsuit or even jail time might be covering up a scam. If you’re afraid of what your lender might do, do some investigating — it might be illegal.
- You can’t get in touch. Scammers often provide fake contact information so you can’t reach out.
- There were blank spaces on your contract. Sometimes scammers offer contracts with wide blank spaces that they can fill it in with terms and conditions you would never agree to.
What to do if you’ve been scammed
It’s always best to educate yourself and avoid a scam altogether. However, if you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, you have a few options:
- Report it to the FTC. While the FTC doesn’t deal with individual complaints, a complaint helps it track fraudulent companies and practices. You can file a complaint online, and it only takes minutes to complete.
- Report it to the CFBP. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) also collects complaints against lenders and can work to resolve the issue.
- Contact your bank or credit union. This may be a necessary step, especially if you’ve fallen for a loan modification scam. Make sure your bank or credit union locks your account to prevent withdrawals.
- Contact the three major credit bureaus. Have Experian, TransUnion and Equifax issue a fraud alert for your credit reports. This helps prevent any new credit accounts being opened in your name.
- Change your passwords. If you applied for a car loan online and later found it was a scam, change your passwords for all your important financial accounts.
- File a report with the police. A local dealership running scams needs to be reported to the police so that they can be held accountable for their harmful practices.
- Contact politicians. Enough complaints from consumers can also lead to an overhaul of local and even federal regulations.
Can I sue a lender over a scam?
Possibly, if your lender has clearly broken the law. Reach out to a lawyer for a consultation to find out if you have a case.
Generally, you have two options when it comes to law suits: You can either join other victims in a class-action lawsuit or sue on your own. If you decide to go solo, be prepared for some steep legal fees.
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Your best defense against scams is knowing what to look for before visiting a dealership. Many common dealer scams target buyers with poor or bad credit scores, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle. Our guide to car loans can help you navigate the buying process and find a lender that can get you the financing you need.
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