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Guest opinion: Court beckons for those lying to win customers

Howard Curle, operations director for AA Vehicle Inspections

Not everyone has the same view of what’s attractive, particularly when it comes to second-hand cars. Beauty really is in the eye of the seller and there can be a tendency to embellish.

But there’s a big difference between focussing on the good areas of a vehicle with an honest description, and deliberately making false claims.

Indeed, to knowingly or recklessly mislead can put traders in potentially hot legal water, with a fine and in the worst cases facing imprisonment.

Used cars are one of the biggest issues people complain about to consumer service Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB). From April 2013 to March 2014, CAB dealt with 69,342 enquiries relating to used cars.

The facts are striking. According to AA research, an estimated 210,000 vehicles sold each year have a major fault and dealers can be unhelpful in resolving the problem.

Interestingly, it’s reckoned some 18,000 vehicles a year are sold where the buyer later finds that the car has been “clocked”.

Little wonder that an AA Populus survey of over 22,000 AA members found that “one third of drivers (about 10m) think buying a car is a stressful experience and one in eight (4m) admit to having made a massive mistake in buying a car”.

Any vehicle descriptions such as ‘Full Service History’, ‘Never Been in an Accident’, ‘One owner’, ‘Good Condition’, should always be verified and documents reviewed to confirm. Otherwise, the dealer could be found to be treating the customer unfairly.

Omitting, hiding or providing information in an “unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner” is also illegal. For instance, if you know the vehicle you’re selling is a ‘write off’ and you fail to tell the customer, then it could be a misleading omission.

This is all spelt out in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. It lays down the law on what you can and cannot do, with a blacklist of 31 practices deemed to be unfair in all circumstances including "Bait advertising".

This is advertising, for example a car, at a specified price without disclosing that you have reasonable grounds to believe you may not be able to supply the customer at that price (for a reasonable period).

Typically, if you use a ‘standard’ advert to sell all your vehicles, then it’s highly likely that the advert will be untrue for a significant number of your vehicles. If trading standards find out, you could end up being prosecuted for ‘making false claims’. And it would be difficult to use the defence that you took “all reasonable precautions and exercised due diligence”.

That certainly wasn’t the case earlier this year with one car dealer from the West Midlands. Dudley Council’s Trading Standards investigated Bradley Bailey, aged 27, of Crabmill Close, Knowle. He claimed that the hatchback he sold in August 2014 came with a warranty, had been finance checked and had been regularly serviced.

However, all of the claims were found to be untrue – the car broke down after just 20 minutes – and after pleading guilty, he was ordered to pay out £4,000.

It’s clearly vital that consumers receive accurate information to enable them to make informed choices about whether or not to buy a vehicle.

Trading Standards, run by local authorities, are responsible for looking into complaints where used cars are not described fully or accurately. So dealers need to ensure they’re not deceiving the customer.

The Used Car Commission was set up in 2013 to explore the problems reported by consumers. It found that the industry generally works well for consumers but has identified some areas for improvement including the development of a minimum set of requirements for used car codes and trader approval schemes.

One way of establishing dealer credibility is an independent vehicle inspection, for instance, carried out by a recognised brand like the AA. It can provide reassurance and confidence for the customer. And with the used car market making up more than half of total car sales and valued at £45.1bn, it is an incredibly important part of the British economy to get right.

Author: Howard Curle, head of operations AA Vehicle Inspections

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