Elisabeth Answers Your Consumer Questions

It's time once again for me to address the questions that are on your minds, my readers. Here are three letters with questions that are relevant to so many of us. I hope my answers are helpful to you.

Question: I purchased a 2007 [vehicle] from [dealership] in Charlotte N.C. It had 32 miles on it. It is eight months later and I have had the vehicle back a number of five times. October: vehicle hard to steer, pulling to the right; November: transmission fluid leakage, bolts not put on correctly; January: popping noise when turning steering wheel, severe hesitation when trying to pick-up speed. Feb/March: hesitation and popping in the wheel more severe.

Click Here to Ask Elisabeth Your Consumer Questions About This Topic or Any Other Consumer Issue

As a teacher, I have to drive to my students using my own vehicle, and every time I get in this vehicle — every time I pull into traffic — I wonder if this will be the day that I don't return home. I cannot afford a lawyer, but I will continue to fight this injustice if I have to represent myself. I continue to make my car payments because my credit is good (at this point). I will tell anyone who will listen … I was sold a "lemon" by this dealership. And according to the North Carolina lemon law, I am well within my rights.

— DM, Charlotte, N.C.

Answer: Congratulations, DM, you have actually made a lot more progress than many motorists just by knowing there are such things as lemon laws and how they work. For those unfamiliar, here's the deal. To the general public: a "lemon"" is slang for a crummy car — one that gives you a sour feeling and makes you pucker up your face. To the government, a lemon is a crummy new car.

This distinction causes a lot of confusion. Plenty of consumers call me to complain about the lemons they've bought. The first thing I always ask is "new or used?" The callers always seem surprised. I guess they're wondering what could be wrong with a new car. The answer is plenty.

Each state's lemon law is a little different. Generally, you must have purchased or leased the car brand new. In some cases you can make a claim if the previous owner bought the car a short time ago and then quickly sold it to you. Some state lemon laws only cover vehicles used primarily for personal use. Others include cars and SUVs but exclude motorcycles. Each state sets a time and mileage limit. For example, you may be required to make a lemon law claim within 15 months or 15,000 miles of buying the vehicle. Explore the lemon law in your state for details.

Each state also defines what counts as a lemon. For example, in one state if the dealer can't correct critical brake or steering problems in one try, the car's considered a lemon. In another, a car is defined as a lemon if the dealer has tried and failed three times to repair a repeat flaw. In a third state, the lemon law covers new cars that have been in the shop for a cumulative total of more than 30 days.

If you believe your car is a lemon, it's your responsibility to notify the manufacturer. (DM, have you done this in addition to complaining to the dealer?) I recommend doing so in writing, by certified mail. Once all of the dealer's repair attempts have been exhausted, the manufacturer is required to repair or replace your car. Of course, many manufacturers fight this and you may have to get help. Your county or state consumer protection office can give you free guidance. Also complain to the DMV or Motor Vehicle Dealer's Board. Many manufacturers participate in arbitration, like the BBB's Autoline program.

If all else fails, you'll have to sue in court. Lemon law procedures should be outlined in your vehicle's warranty manual. Don't assume you can't afford a lawyer. Some attorneys may take lemon law cases on a contingency basis. Just search "lemon law" and "attorney" and the name of your state and you'll get all sorts of listings.

Question: I was in a car accident which mushed in the front end of my 2004 [vehicle]. It was drivable but I towed it to my Dealer. It was appraised by their Collision department as having $7,651.85 worth of damage.

I looked at buying a certified [replacement vehicle] from them. I signed a contract to purchase the [replacement vehicle]. I gave them $1,000 cash and signed the title of my car to them, for which they gave me $1,000.

I drove off the lot with the [replacement vehicle] and promised to return with my tax returns that showed I made $31,000 in 2006. The next day I returned and the financial people said that the $31,000 was not all income and to bring another tax return and they would continue to try and get financing. In summary, I had five phone calls and was told that I would need to return the car. I was told that my [original vehicle] was not around and it may have been sold.

— ST, Baltimore

Answer: ST, if you strip away all the complications of bringing in a damaged car and deciding to buy a new one instead, you have just experienced a frustratingly common occurrence called "spot delivery."

You're not allowed to return a car just because you don't like it. But dealers are allowed to make you return the car if the bank doesn't like you. It's called "spot delivery" because the dealer lets you take the car home on the spot. But, as you experienced, the dealer may call a couple days or weeks later asking you to give that car back.

Why? New and used car dealers are always hungry to make a sale. They know their best chance to do that is while you're right there on their lot. So they do a lot of deals without getting the approval of the bank. (After all, most car sales happen on weekends when banks are closed.) The dealership looks at your credit and makes a guess as to what kind of financing the bank will offer you. That's how your contract is drawn up. Often the dealer guesses wrong and the bank refuses to give you the loan. That's when you get the call demanding that you return the car. It's an obnoxious practice — especially when the dealer traps you by selling off your original car.

It's amazing that somebody would let you take home such an expensive piece of equipment without knowing whether you'll be able to pay for it. But since most car sales include financing, it's possible the majority of them are spot deliveries. Different states address the issue in their own ways. For example, in one state consumers have the right to force the dealership to honor the contract. Unfortunately, dealers get around this by having customers sign an addendum promising to return the car if the financing falls through. Another the state has effectively legalized spot delivery by requiring a disclosure statement right in the contract that explains the deal may not be final.

To avoid spot deliveries:

Obtain financing offers from banks and credit unions before shopping for a car. That way you won't need the dealer's financing,

If you do go with the dealer's financing, ask if the terms of the loan are guaranteed or whether this is a spot delivery. (Just by knowing such obscure lingo you'll be sending the salesperson a message not to mess with you.)

If the financing is not guaranteed, offer to complete the sale when it is, and drive home in your own car.

Read and understand every word of your sales and financing contract. Look for paragraphs or extra pages that talk about your obligation to return the car if the deal falls through.

Beware of promissory notes. Some dealers will try to get you to sign something saying you'll find a way to pay for the car even if the dealer's loan is not approved. These documents are enforceable, so don't sign one. You could get yourself into a real mess.

Other dealers slip multiple financing deals into the stack of paperwork and get consumers to sign all of them. That way the dealer can easily shift you into a less favorable loan. Don't fall for that either.

If you have been a victim of spot delivery, complain to the DMV or the Motor Vehicle Dealer's Board. Send copies of your complaint to the BBB and your county and state consumer protection offices.

Question: I want to ask how to stop e-mail spam. I receive at least 50 spam e-mails per day.

-- PE, Milan, Mich.

Answer: Don't we all wish we had the magic bullet that would stop spam from invading our inboxes? I don't know of a 100 percent foolproof solution, but here are some strategies that will help a great deal.

Try different Internet service providers until you find the one with the best spam filter.

Choose a screen name that's unpredictable rather than just using your name. Include some numbers in the name.

Avoid posting your screen name in public places like message boards. Better yet, set up two screen names: one for private/personal e-mail and another for shopping and surfing. I personally do this and it is so helpful.

Never, ever click on an attachment in a spam e-mail. Try not to even open them. This helps the spammers confirm that they have reached an active account.

If your e-mail program has a "block sender" or "report junk mail" option, use it aggressively.

Don't use the unsubscribe option at the bottom of an e-mail, unless you know the company is reputable. Illegal spammers just use that unsubscribe button to verify your address and send you more junk.