By Ellen Cheek, Staff Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline
Many a consumer regrets an impulsive car purchase (what was I thinking??) or comes to regret the purchase because of the less-than-supportive response of a family member (what were you thinking??) If it appears that senior consumers in particular suffer from buyer’s remorse, it may be because there are many reasons a senior consumer is an easy target for a dealer’s high pressure sales tactics. Consider that most seniors have regular, if limited, income; that they have pride in their ability to handle their affairs; that they feel morally bound and will sacrifice to pay even an unaffordable bill; and that having made a dubious decision, their embarrassment precludes reaching out. Couple this buyer profile with the fact that in many states, a car purchase creates an immediately binding legal agreement (no 3 day right to cancel) and that the dealer can be compensated in full because of the availability of financing, and it is no mystery that many senior window-shoppers become buyers in short order. But while some consumers succumb to an otherwise legal sales pitch, others are victimized by predatory practices which literally threaten their fragile budgets and ultimate well-being.
How can a hotline attorney distinguish between the two? Two recent cases from the Florida Senior Legal Helpline are illustrative. Both cases involved an easily confused, though arguably competent, senior of advanced age. Both involved the purchase of one vehicle which was returned for service and never returned; both seniors ended up with different, more expensive vehicles (in one case, with two others) and with opaque refinanced transactions (the 87 year old consumer’s ultimate loan was for 20 (!) years.) In both cases, the seniors were in the presence of the sales person for hours and executed transactions which they did not understand. In both cases, the clients’ extremely limited income (Social Security for one couple, Social Security and a veteran’s benefit for the other) and advanced age were almost certainly misrepresented on the financing applications. In both cases, Clients had minimal documentation of the sales and no documentation of the financing until payment coupon books arrived.
Fortunately, both cases were resolved after a Senior Legal Helpline attorney helped draft new complaint affidavits. The new affidavits were submitted to a special unit of the DMV which investigated and ultimately “unwound” the offending transactions. It is significant that in both cases, it was the hotline attorney who elicited the information from the clients which became the grounds for the complaint affidavits; the clients themselves described only frustrating, but legal, aspects of their cases. For example, the 87 year old client believed that the dealer’s real offense was that the first vehicle purchased was a lemon; though undoubtedly true, it was an “As Is” purchase and client would have gotten no legal relief on that basis. Indeed, the DMV had already closed one complaint to that effect which the client had filed on his own. The case was reopened upon submission of the revised affidavit which alleged financing misrepresentations, home solicitation violations, and bait and switch. Similarly, the other client called the Helpline in the mistaken belief that there was a 3 day right to cancel law which applied to vehicle sales. His initial complaint to the DMV had also been closed without investigation; the case was reopened by the DMV when the revised complaint was submitted, and the allegations of serial bait and switch (this client had inadvertently purchased two cars) and financing misrepresentations were explored. In other words, successful resolution happened because the hotline attorney asked questions which exposed the predatory behavior and established the likelihood of financial exploitation. Once those circumstances were known and described in the complaints and the relevant documents gathered and submitted, both seniors received legal relief without litigation. Admittedly, successful resolution of these cases was facilitated by the existence of an informal administrative complaint process designed to investigate allegations of dubious dealer practices. However, the cases highlight the role a hotline attorney can play in helping callers identify the relevant legal issues and to effectively communicate those issues to the appropriate resources in their jurisdiction.