When a consumer is taken advantage of

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Bob Levey

My friend is 88 years old. He has all his marbles and a lifetime of experience in the consumer world.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a victim. He just was.

One day in late summer, he marched into a local car dealership to “just have a look” at the new 2012 models. Salespeople dream of such customers, especially those who can pay cash. And this salesman didn’t have to wait long.

My friend test-drove a brand-spanking-new V-8 and later left the lot in it. But he also drove away with less of a discount than he had been promised. He was essentially conned out of $1,500.

It’s a tale of incredible carelessness on my guy’s part — but also incredible unfairness on the dealership’s part.

I still can’t decide how to apportion the blame exactly. But the more I think about it, the more the salesman’s share creeps above 50 percent. And the more I think about it, the more I think the salesman tried his luck on my friend because he’s up in years.

Here’s how it played out:

As soon as my friend said he wanted to look at the new 2012s, the salesman said oh-gosh-oh-gee, it’s your lucky day, sir. Since it’s the end of the month, we are offering $5,000 off the sticker price on all 2012s.

The salesman did not write down this offer, and my friend did not ask him to do so.

They walked through the usual steps — make, color, horsepower, accessories. When my guy had given a piece of his heart to a shiny champagne gold sedan, the salesman wrote up a bill of sale.

Very soon, they were in an office on the other side of the dealership, where a finance fellow was finalizing the sale. A few strokes of the adding machine, a few handshakes, and it was all done.

The next morning, my friend happened to read the bill of sale.

Yes, he should have done this in the finance fellow’s office before forking over any money. No, he hadn’t done so. Yes, he knows that he is the last line of defense against flimflams and filches. After all, he is 88, and he has been buying cars for 65 years.

And yes, alas, they had shafted him. The promised $5,000 discount was $3,500.

So he went back to the finance man the next day. Oh-gosh-oh-gee, said this man. My friend must have misunderstood. They offer a discount of only $3,500 to people with General Motors credit cards, since such card-holders already get $1,500 off new cars.

Wait a second, my friend said. The GM credit card gives me an additional discount of $1,500 on a new GM model. It doesn’t decrease my discount by $1,500.

The finance man hemmed and hawed and jawed and juked. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what he said. But the result was that he wore down an 88-year-old man, who finally got tired and confused.

He tucked his tail between his legs and left without the $1,500 he had been promised — bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

The $1,500 isn’t all that important to my friend. He will not miss any meals because of it. And he readily admits that he shops for new cars because it’s a form of recreation for him. Better to be out $1,500 and still have a new car to show for it than to blow $1,500 at a casino and have nothing to show for it.

But he knows he was “played” by the dealership, and he doesn’t like it.

Neither do I.

I can only imagine what happened that night when the salesman walked in the front door of his home. “Did you have a nice day at work, dear?” his spouse might have asked him.

“Boy, did I!” this wonderful person might have replied. “I conned an 88-year-old man out of $1,500! I think I’ll have a martini to celebrate!”

Drink up, my good man. But in between sips, consider this: There’s a way to smack back against the kind of treatment my friend got. It’s called a buddy system.

What if a squadron of volunteers agreed to accompany up-in-years car shoppers when they visit dealerships?

What if those volunteers — younger and tougher — sat in during those final minutes in the finance office?

What if they acted as attorneys-without-a-diploma — reading over the paperwork and asking the buyer (in the presence of the finance guy) whether he’s sure he’s getting what he wants?

I have a feeling that a salesman’s end-of-the-day martini might not taste quite so good.

I hereby volunteer to help any up-in-years car shopper who thinks he or she might need a “wing man.” If anyone at the dealership objects, I’ll say: “See that door? We can walk out through it just as easily as we walked in through it.” The smart ones will get the message.

So will the smart ones on the consuming side of the ledger.

It is very easy to get confused at the end of a car purchase — regardless of age. A buddy will help you stay grounded, and will help put that full promised discount where it belongs.

In your pocket.


Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.