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Certified By Who? What You Should Know Before Buying a Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle

Consumers purchasing a used car may be deceived by an automobile dealer in a number of ways.  No doubt, various forms of automobile fraud, or “auto fraud”, are on the rise all over the country as many Americans struggle to find reliable transportation.  Unfortunately, an area of automobile fraud that is incredibly deceptive to consumers is the sale of a so-called “Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle” appears to be on the rise.  

A certified used car, or CPO, is a vehicle that is alleged to have been inspected and certified by a dealer or manufacturer. The exact nature of this certification inspection varies from one manufacturer to the next, but a typical CPO is supposed to undergo a detailed inspection of at least 100 points to ensure that it meets high manufacturer standards.  And, most importantly, many manufacturers will back up their CPO programs and audit their certifying dealers to ensure that they are complying with the program’s requirements.  

Consumers generally see a higher value in a CPO, and pay extra for certified pre-owned cars primarily for the peace of mind factor, as well as the benefit of an extended warranty (depending on mileage and manufacturer specifications). Profit-obsessed dealers know this and many will manipulate this process in order to mislead consumers to improve their bottom line.

Many dealers will advertise their used cars as “certified” when all they’ve done is inspected and reconditioned the vehicle. These cars are likely not bona fide CPOs, and may not be backed up by any manufacturer promises, warranties, or guarantees. They likely do not meet the manufacturer’s inspection criteria, have a factory-extended warranty, or offer buyers certain CPO program perks such as loaner vehicles and free roadside assistance.

Another common strategy is to apply an extended warranty to a car and advertise it as “certified” even if it is not. Some dealers will even take a certain make of vehicle, give it a third-party warranty, and sell it as certified. (For example, a Toyota dealer selling a “certified” Audi.) Don’t be fooled: only a franchised dealer for any given manufacturer can sell that company’s CPO cars. If you go to a Cadillac dealership and see “certified” BMWs on the lot, you should be careful in proceeding.  Ask a lot of questions, and make sure you get satisfactory answers – preferably in writing. Such an establishment should only be selling Cadillac CPOs.

If you’re interested in a car and the dealer says they will certify it for you after purchase, go elsewhere. No vehicle can be certified after the fact, and such an offer is probably the dealer’s way of trying to sell you an extended warranty.

To avoid being deceived, here are some tips:

  • Verify that the vehicle is a genuine CPO. If you want to purchase a CPO Volkswagen, visit a Volkswagen dealership. If the manufacturer’s CPO logo is on the window sticker and Volkswagen is providing the warranty, it’s likely legitimate.
  • Google the VIN.  Often, this can contain a wealth of information about the vehicle.  
  • Have the car inspected by a professional mechanic you can trust to check for frame damage, or other evidence that the car was damaged or is not mechanically sound.  
  • If you are unable to inspect the vehicle for whatever reason, you may attempt to self-inspect the car on your own. A manufacturer-certified vehicle should not have glaring defects such as dented bumpers, cracks in the windshield, or tires that are in poor shape.
  • Ask the dealer for a free history of the vehicle from AutoCheck or Carfax – preferably both as an accident or damage disclosure may show up on one, but not the other. As an added precaution, you can carry out a VINCheck vehicle-history search at the National Insurance Crime Bureau website.
    • NOTE: Please note that Carfax, AutoCheck and others like it are not 100% accurate and there can be many flaws.  This can create a false sense of security on behalf of the consumer.  
    • For example, check out this article by noted auto fraud expert Bernard Brown from Kansas City on the dangers of relying on such reports as gospel.
  • Check for open recalls here.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains this database of recalls by Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN).  
    • Very Important Note: However, please note that due to a recent FTC decision, “certified cars” may still be sold with an open recall.

If you buy a vehicle that you understood to be a CPO and discover that it is merely “dealer-certified”, or you find that your CPO car was actually a prior rental car, or was involved in a prior collision, etc. that was not disclosed to you, you should try to find a solution with the dealer first.  Filing a complaint with your state’s Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) may also be helpful in getting a resolution when the dealer has stopped taking your calls. Please click here for links to file a complaint with the CFPB.

If these avenues prove ineffective, you should contact a consumer protection or consumer fraud attorney to assist with your auto fraud issue.   The attorneys at Bell Law, LLC are dedicated to protecting consumers against dealer auto fraud, and will provide a free consultation to help evaluate your case.

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