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'Buyer beware' rings especially true today

It started with a $15 discrepancy. If not for the $15, we would not have found $1,400 more that we should not have paid for our new car.

At a time when car sales had dropped and when vans were a glut on the market, we needed a van to assist a disabled family member. We were paying cash. No worry about financing a loan in a credit-tight world. We had bought a car from the dealer before and had used its service center for several years.

We expected to be treated well. Instead, we appear to have been targeted, perhaps by age, perhaps by the vulnerability imposed by disability, perhaps because we were lulled into trust by our established relationship with this dealer. I will not name the dealer, because what we experienced there may be happening elsewhere.

Western New York has had a long love affair with automobiles. Many of us have worked for automobile companies. We have benefited from employee incentive plans and have contributed to the survival of the Big Three at great cost to ourselves through layoffs and union give-backs. Thus, we might expect that when we purchase these vehicles, we would not run into chicanery.

We spent more than an hour negotiating the conditions of our sale. Everything was noted on a worksheet. We were not provided with a copy of this worksheet. It needed to be typed up for us to sign the next day.

We were told we were receiving the sale price on the car, the best price out there. The price the next day was $15 higher than quoted the day before. We mentioned the discrepancy. The salesman shrugged. We decided not to argue. But we did look more closely at the purchase agreement -- and found a $299 item (not including tax) we had not discussed and therefore had not authorized. There was no apology, but we obtained a check for that item (including tax) before we left the dealership with the car.

We now had a car in the driveway, but soon realized we had no DMV paperwork or proof of the warranty we had so laboriously insisted upon and been told we had. We didn't have our $15 back, either.

The disabled person in the house found the DMV's "Buyer Be Aware" brochure on the Web. She made a list of missing documents. We decided this was worth a blog (http://sporkworld.tumblr.com/).

I started working on the post by visiting the dealer's Web site to see how it describes itself. Maybe the car in our driveway was listed on the site. It was -- for $1,010 less than the "sale price" we had just paid.

World War III muskets went off in my head.

The next day, we met with the dealership's general manager, and we got all of the overcharges back -- including that telltale $15. Mistakes were made, he said.

Mistakes can easily be made when:

There is no sticker price on the new or used cars at the dealership. This was new to us.

Customers are not given copies of the worksheets.

Pricing is unclear. This dealer's Internet price includes everything but taxes and fees. The dealer's Buffalo News ad quotes sale prices after $1,000 down in cash or trade. And the salesman quotes a "sale price" as well.

"Buyer Be Aware" seems to be especially important when a harsh economy may tempt companies to introduce new complications into a common business transaction.

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