You would think that by 2021 car dealers would have wised up and fixed the broken mess that is car shopping. Many stores have adapted, but some are still relying on classic “stealership” tricks. One of the most egregious is preventing someone from leaving the showroom.
Imagine going to your local big-box store for some specific item, only to learn when you get there that the price isn’t as good as you thought. On your way out, the manager sends some goons to block the exit and demands you take that deal right now.
This sounds absolutely ridiculous, but similar situations have happened, and continue to happen, at car dealerships.
A Jalopnik reader who is a Maryland consumer protection attorney, Daniel Whitney Jr., told me about two recent cases his firm handled in which dealerships resorted to “false imprisonment” in an attempt to force a customer to take a deal that was clearly not in the buyer’s best interest.
According to Mr. Whitney’s blog post, one of the cases happened as follows -
“After signing a contract for a new car, our client realized that she had been charged more than she agreed to pay. The resulting dispute leads to the car dealership manager trying to force her to sign paperwork that she did not want to sign, and was not necessary, given that the sale had been completed. She refused, and despite the threats of the manager, went back to her car to try and leave. However, when she returned to her car, she found herself blocked in by another car that the manager had an employee park directly in front of her. It is was only after calling the police that the dealership allowed her to leave.”
The customer then contacted Mr. Whitney’s firm and they were able to settle the case with the dealership for $100,000. He also told me about another case in which a woman took her car in for service and showed interest in a new car deal, only to have the dealer hide the keys to her trade-in for hours until she too called the police.
In addition to speaking with Mr. Whitney, I also contacted former Jalopnik contributor and consumer protection attorney Steve Lehto. He said that he had never handled a false imprisonment case, but he had heard of dealers doing the “hide the keys” trick on a number of occasions.
I asked both attorneys what customers should do if they find themselves in a situation where a dealer is preventing them from leaving. Both said that dealers will often immediately change their approach once the police are called.
Another possible approach is to take out your cellphone and start recording the conversation. Mr. Whitney says that as long as the other person is aware you are recording, you avoid issues with local laws. He also says that once the dealer lets you leave you may still have a legal case. He advises that you email the dealership with instructions to “preserve all interior and exterior audio and video recordings on the date the incident happened in anticipation of litigation.”
While I’m sure some car shoppers would like to extract a nice settlement from a dealership, I think the best way to manage these situations is to avoid them altogether. The vast majority of dealers know better. Consumers should get a quote in writing ahead of time and do some research about the dealer via reviews and social media. Then buyers can focus on the stores that are professional and cooperative.