Some people see deals too tempting to pass up on the internet. A car in another state, the price is just right and the pictures look good. You can safely buy a used car - trusting the listing - without getting ripped off, right? Guess what the attorney is going to tell you?
"Scott" shopped for cars online and found one he liked. The car was in Detroit but he lived in another state. The seller sent him photographs of the 2 year-old vehicle showing it to be in immaculate condition. They negotiated a price and Scott sent the funds. The seller agreed to ship the car to him.
A few days later, a truck pulled up in front of Scott's house with the vehicle on it. He went out and as he approached the truck he immediately noticed something wrong. The vehicle delivered was the same make, model and color as the one in the pictures but either it was a different vehicle or the pictures he was sent were "before" the vehicle had been in an accident and poorly straightened. Body panels were so far off there was no question the vehicle had been wrecked.
The truck driver pulled out a clipboard and asked him to sign. The sheet showed the driver had picked the vehicle up in its present condition. It looked like one of those sheets you see at a car rental place to indicate damage. There were red circles all over the document. When Scott indicated he would not sign for the vehicle and wanted to refuse delivery, the truck driver told him he had another load to pick up so he had to leave the vehicle with him. The vehicle got dumped in front of his house.
Luckily, Scott saved the photos he had been sent as well as screen shots of the internet ads for the vehicle. Take note: about half the people who call me about bad internet transactions did not think to save the ads until it was too late. Bad guys often pull down their ads the second they have your money.
Scott contacted the seller who told him to take a flying leap. The ad said the vehicle was being sold "as-is" so – in his opinion – no refunds. Scott contacted me and after I viewed all of his documents I informed him that he was not out of luck. "As-Is" merely means there is no warranty of merchantability. It does not absolve a seller of, for instance, a bait-and-switch.
I filed suit against the seller for a variety of things – fraud, breach of warranty, breach of contract – and had him served with the lawsuit. A few days later I got a phone call from an attorney. The first offer? They would refund the purchase price of the vehicle if we shipped the vehicle back and ate the shipping charges both ways.
We countered and said that we would agree to take their money when it was enough to refund the purchase price, shipping both ways and my attorney's fees and costs. The other attorney said I was "black mailing" them and that I should be ashamed of myself. This, from an attorney representing a man who ships wrecked vehicles to people who respond to ads showing pristine ones.
A few days later, the attorney called back and said they would agree to my demand. Full refund, shipping, attorney's fees and court costs etc.
This story ended well but I am amazed at how some people have no qualms about buying large and expensive items sight-unseen from the internet. Scott obviously hadn't laid eyes on the vehicle or test driven it. Who knows what else might have been wrong with it even if it HAD been delivered to him as it appeared in the pictures? Pictures don't show engine problems, transmission defects, or any of the other countless things which might afflict used cars. What if it pulled to one side? What if it smelled because a family of skunks had climbed in the trunk and died? I've seen photos taken by internet sellers who carefully shot "around" obvious problems with a car they were selling. And the vehicle above? The Carfax was clean - so you can't always count on that.
I know some people are going to chime in here and suggest that this transaction would have been "protected" if it had happened on Ebay. True, Ebay offers "Purchase Protection" but it only covers very specific circumstances. And, I can tell you from personal experience that the program is not administered by Ebay and dealing with it is like trying to file a claim with someone else's insurance company.
Do I need to tell you I recommend you not do this? And by this, I mean buy a vehicle where your only knowledge of it comes from the internet and you won't see it until after you buy it. If the urge to buy over the internet like this overwhelms you despite my admonition then there are some things you might want to consider.
First, save copies of the internet ad. Print it out, get a screen shot, whatever works. Bookmarking the page is not enough. Download all of the pictures in the highest resolution you can and save them. Negotiate a price similar to what you would pay if you were buying locally but the seller refused to let you have a test drive. After all, you aren't getting one here either. And keep in mind that if the deal falls apart, it is often much messier than if you got ripped off by a local seller. Especially if your seller is out-of-state. I've handled several of these cases and have noticed that a disproportionate number of the problems arise when the parties are in different states. I suspect that some sellers specifically look for buyers in other states, hoping the distance will insulate them from liability. It doesn't; but that doesn't mean it will be any easier to straighten out either.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, specializing in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device.
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