I've bought two new cars in my life. Each time I felt snookered. Even though I'd done my homework, poring over reports detailing what the cars should cost, after a final deal was reached -- and the salesman had made that obligatory trip to "talk with the manager" -- I felt somehow ripped off.

This doesn't happen when I'm buying a dress at Macy's, but car dealers, with their opaque pricing system and trade-in and financing tricks, make their customers feel like pigeons. The No. 1 consumer complaint received by the Better Business Bureau and other consumer agencies is on abusive financial practices by auto dealers, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

That's why it is unfathomable that Congress is poised to exempt car dealers from oversight by the new government agency designed to protect consumers from financial predation.

It's another story of money equals power. Since 2007, the car dealers' trade groups have spent $12 million lobbying Congress. Their money bought them a special-interest carve-out for car dealers in the House-passed financial reform bill so dealers wouldn't be subject to regulation by a new consumer financial protection agency. The Senate bill doesn't include the exemption, but last month in a Republican-dominated nonbinding vote, the Senate directed conference negotiators to support one.

Congress thinks that banks need a new regulatory body to police their abusive lending practices, but car dealers should continue with business as usual.

Haven't these people ever bought a car?

Here's a better question: Don't members of Congress care about our soldiers? Whatever happened to "Support Our Troops"? Our true-blue service members end up in the red financially because car dealers notoriously target service members for predatory lending.

Just ask Holly Petraeus, director of the Better Business Bureau's military program and the wife of Gen. David Petraeus. In a recent conference call, Petraeus told reporters: "It's a fact that military personnel love their cars. Sadly, many of them end up paying far more for them than they should. Many are locked in long-term loans at rates of 15, 16, 17, even 19 percent and higher."

These financially unsophisticated young people desperate for a cool car are chum to unscrupulous car lots that crop up around military bases like stinkweed. Using an arsenal of fraudulent tactics, these dealers wreak havoc on buyers' finances and credit. The dealers know their victims will be deployed or transferred before legal remedies can be sought.

Soldiers are pushed into car contracts and financing agreements stuffed with overpriced extras such as extended warranties and gap insurance that covers the loan if the vehicle is wrecked. The fine print includes hidden fees and exorbitant interest rates that jack up the final price of a vehicle to many times its worth.

Sometimes loan documents are forged to qualify a soldier for a higher-priced vehicle that he can't afford. And there's outright theft, such as never sending the buyer the title to the car, or a dealer reneging on a promise to pay off the outstanding debt on a trade-in, leaving the buyer with two loans to pay.

The problem is so pervasive that the Defense Department says 72 percent of surveyed military financial counselors on bases across the country have seen these problems within the prior six months.

This also affects military readiness. "A service member who is preoccupied with financial problems is one who cannot do his job effectively," Holly Petraeus said. "If he loses his security clearance because of those financial problems, he cannot do his job at all."

Meanwhile, every Senate Republican present, along with 20 Democrats and one independent, voted for the carve-out for car dealers, over the strong objections of President Barack Obama and the Defense Department.

Nice patriotism.

On the business side, why wouldn't reputable car dealers want to get rid of all the shady doings in their industry? I would think dealerships that operate on the up-and-up would welcome tighter oversight.

Not a chance. The National Automobile Dealers Association is the exemption's chief proponent. Which is why I hate buying a car. My head looks to them like a giant red lollipop every time I step on a dealer's lot.



Copyright © Robyn Blumner. All rights reserved.


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