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This Brooklyn Grandmother Fought Back Against a Shady Used Car Dealer and Won

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Rhoda Branch, 52, lost thousands of dollars and her mobility when a used car dealer took her for a ride. But with the help of a consumer protection group, she fought back — and won.

This story is Part II of a MagnifyMoney investigation into the risky business of subprime auto lending. Read Part I here

Rhoda Branche’s rocky road began with Superstorm Sandy in 2012. After the hurricane totaled her car, she turned to Giuffre Motors in Brooklyn to shop for a new vehicle.

“They said they would help me,” recalled Rhoda. “They were very friendly – and then they just starting pushing the papers through.”

She said the dealership promised her $4,000 in incentives to buy a used 2004 Volvo SUV – and offered to arrange a loan for her.

According to a copy of the contract obtained by MagnifyMoney, the incentives were missing from the sales contract Rhoda signed. The financing was no bargain either – a subprime loan with an annual interest rate of 23.5%.  Subprime customers are typically high-risk borrowers who pay more in finance charges because of poor credit histories.

Worst of all, Rhoda’s $13,000 SUV would soon stop running. Instead of repairs, the dealership gave her the runaround.

“It was a vehicle that shouldn’t be on the road,” Rhoda said. “They just said the vehicle was fine. It looks good on the outside, but it was a lemon.”

In desperation, she took the Volvo to other mechanics and spent $3,000 from her own pocket, but the SUV kept breaking down. As a last straw, she surrendered the title of ownership to the finance company that held her loan.

Without a car, it often takes Rhoda two buses, a subway ride, and 90 minutes to travel nine miles from her apartment in Coney Island, N.Y., to a hospital where she frequently seeks treatment.

“I have to take public transportation,” said Rhoda, who suffers from injuries that required operations on both knees. “It is very time-consuming. It causes a lot of pain. I have pains all over my body because I had surgery.”

Not the Only One

“Many sellers of cars to people with subprime credit sell you junk. And they know they’re selling you junk,” said Remar Sutton, a former car dealer turned consumer advocate. He wrote about the tricks of the used car trade in his book, “Don’t Get Taken Every Time.”

“They sell you a car they know you cannot pay for, or they know will break down, and they repossess it because you can’t pay for it or it breaks down,” said Sutton. “And then they sell it again.”

Rhoda did not know she was the latest in a long line of customers who were victims of the dealership’s unethical sales tactics.

The New York attorney general sued Giuffre in 2010 on behalf of 42 customers who claimed they were cheated. In Kings County Supreme Court, a judge ordered the dealership to pay more than a half-million dollars in fines and restitution for its illegal business practices.

Giuffre had “a common practice of strong-arm sales methods and unethical conduct,” wrote Judge Bernard Graham in his 2011 decision. “The list of grievances is extensive and unsettling.”

Rhoda was one of at least one dozen consumers who filed complaints against Giuffre with New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Under pressure from the DCA, Giuffre agreed to pay $180,000 in fines plus $100,000 into a restitution fund as part of a consent order in April 2014, nine months after Rhoda’s complaint.

From the settlement, Rhoda confirmed she received roughly $4,600 in restitution. And two months after the consent order, Kings County Civil Court dismissed a $5,000 claim against Rhoda by a finance company that tried to collect the unpaid amount of her car loan.

Owner John Giuffre could not be reached for comment. His lawyer did not respond to MagnifyMoney’s interview requests.

As a result of the DCA consent order, Giuffre was forced out of the car business in New York City. His last dealership closed in December 2014; its doors and windows remain boarded shut. But consumers have plenty of reasons to remain cautious.

“There are, unfortunately, thousands of companies in America that will deliberately sell you cars that they know are going to break down,” said Sutton.

Rhonda hopes she can afford to buy another car someday. But she’s afraid of being ripped off again.

“Now I’m very skeptical going to other places because I remember what I went through,” she lamented. “I don’t know what dealership I should trust when I’m ready to buy another vehicle.”

How to Buy a Used Car Without Being Cheated

Shop for financing before you look for a vehicle: The subprime interest rate a credit union can offer may be half of what a car dealer charges you. Don’t assume that your poor credit history means you won’t have a shot at getting a loan from a reputable lender. It’s perfectly fine to get your own financing outside of a dealer — and, as our story shows, it’s often much more affordable. To make matters better, if you come in with a verified offer from another lender, the dealer has an incentive to try to beat their offer.

Check your credit score yourself: Don’t take a dealer’s word on it when it comes to your credit. Your score may be good enough to qualify for a better rate on a loan elsewhere, but the dealer may not want you to know that.  You can check your credit score on a number of sites for free, including the Discover Scorecard. And again, if you shop around for rates before you go to the dealer, you will know exactly what rates you deserve — and when they are offering you a bad deal.

Buy a car that works: Bring a mechanic or a knowledgeable friend to check it out before you decide. You can also check the vehicle’s background by getting a vehicle history report through resources such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, CARFAX, and AutoCheck.

Buy a car you can afford: If a dealer makes promises, be sure to get it in writing. Go in with a firm idea of what kind of car you want and how much you can afford to pay.

And slow down: Never sign a contract in a hurry. Dealers may be friendly, but they’re not really your friend. To double-check a dealer’s reputability, check out their reviews and rating on the Better Business Bureau website.

Additional reporting by Mandi Woodruff

Mark Lagerkvist
Mark Lagerkvist |

Mark Lagerkvist is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mark here

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This Woman Fell Into a Used Car Loan Trap — Now She’s Fighting Back

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Mary McDuffie Morton, 31, was sued by an auto financing company after she stopped making payments on a used car that had mechanical issues. Now the mother of four, who said she was misled by the company, is fighting their claims in court.

This story is Part I of a MagnifyMoney investigation into the risky business of subprime auto lending. Read Part II here.

In the summer of 2013, Mary McDuffie Morton, 31, needed money to buy a car. At the time, the recently divorced mother of four had a poor credit history. So she was excited to hear she could get a subprime loan at a used auto dealership in Bronx, N.Y.

“It [seemed] too good to be true,” Mary recalls. “As long you have a job, you’re approved. It’s like wow, OK, I’m guaranteed approval.”

Nationwide, customers like Mary owe more than a quarter-billion dollars in high-interest, high-risk subprime auto loans. A recent report by Moody’s Investors Service found that Santander Consumer USA Holdings Inc., a major originator of subprime auto loans, has been slacking when it comes to verifying the income reported by loan applicants, according to Bloomberg. This can make it easier for car buyers to take on more debt than they can afford to repay.

But big banks aren’t the biggest problem in auto lending. About three-fourths of subprime auto loans do not originate in banks or credit unions. Instead, they are often signed at car lots like the one in Bronx, N.Y., where Mary was lured by the promise of easy credit.

In many cases, those customers are taken for a ride by predatory dealerships and finance companies alike.

“Their main job is not to care for you. It’s to care for their pocketbook, and that’s all they’re there for,” says Remar Sutton, a former car dealer turned consumer advocate.

“How many of you have seen the ads that say, ‘No credit, bad credit, no worries, we’re the credit fixer’? That is not why those ads are running. Those ads are running because they know if you think you have bad credit, you will pay anything for a car, and they’ll knock a home run on you,” warns Sutton.

That’s what happened to Mary. To buy a used 2003 GMC Envoy XL, the dealer told her she needed to first borrow roughly $7,000.

“The dealership told me they were going to shop around for lenders for me – and they were going to call one and get back to me,” Mary says.

The dealer selected Dependable Credit Corp. of Yonkers, N.Y. The interest rate on Mary’s loan was a whopping 24.9% – just one-tenth of a point below the threshold of criminal usury in New York State.

Mary signed the contract, despite an interest rate so high that it was nearly illegal.

“I was scared that if I didn’t go along with that deal, I wouldn’t get a car, ” she says.

The Secret Bonus

Like many lenders that work with auto dealers, to get business from dealers, Dependable offers them a secret bonus. It’s called a “Dealer Reserve Advance,” and it can add an extra two points of interest to the consumer’s loan. The dealer keeps 70% of it as a reward for making the referral to the finance company.

“When you go into that dealership, do you think they’re going to point you in the direction of a cheap loan? Of course not. They’re going to send you to the finance source that will pay them cash up front on the loan,” says Sutton.

Dependable executives did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment.

On its website, the finance company claims it does business with 250 used car dealers in seven states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and New York – and has financed more than $200 million in loans.

“They’re in hundreds of dealerships because they’re making millions of dollars, because people who are poor, people who are worried about their credit, are being taken advantage of by that business,” says Sutton, a co-founder of FoolProof, a nonprofit website devoted to consumer education.

Mary said the vehicle she purchased had mechanical problems that the dealer refused to fix. Sensing that she was being cheated, the former Bronx resident refused to make loan payments until she received a title proving she owned the car.

“They sold me a lemon,” complains Mary. “I knew that the deal was just a big scam.”

A Long Fight in Court

Dependable repossessed the Envoy when Mary’s payments were five weeks delinquent. By the time she received the title, the car was gone – and she was thousands of dollars in debt.

According to records obtained by MagnifyMoney, the finance company sold the vehicle to an undisclosed owner for $4,200 – a price that was $5,000 less than what Mary paid just four months earlier.

Then Dependable sued her in Bronx County Civil Court for a bill packed with extra charges. The tally includes nearly $1,200 in repairs by Westchester Auto Center and more than $1,700 in storage fees charged by Saw Mill River Realty.

The three businesses are located at the same address. State records show that all three share the same chief executive.

Dependable continues to charge Mary 24.9% interest on a loan for a car it repossessed and sold to someone else three years ago. Last year, the company told the court Mary owes nearly $11,000.

“Unfortunately, most places that want to make you a subprime loan simply want to make more money on you,” says Sutton.

With the help of a legal aid group, Mary is countersuing. She alleges she was cheated through deception and illegal business practices by the finance company and the dealer.

In a counterclaim filed by Mary’s attorney, Shanna Tallarico with the New York Legal Assistance Group, in October 2016, Mary claims that the dealer also required her to trade in her 2004 Cadillac CTS in order to purchase the used Envoy.  The dealership agreed to give her just $1,900 for the vehicle, citing “a significant problem with the Cadillac’s engine,” according to Mary’s counterclaim. Days later, she claims the dealership listed that same Cadillac for sale for $9,999.

Efforts to reach the dealer for comment were unsuccessful. Mary’s case is still pending, Tallarico says.

“I felt like I had just thrown money in the garbage,” says Mary. “The whole experience was a waste of money.”

How to Buy a Used Car Without Being Cheated

Shop for financing before you look for a vehicle: The subprime interest rate a credit union can offer may be half of what a car dealer charges you. Don’t assume that your poor credit history means you won’t have a shot at getting a loan from a reputable lender. It’s perfectly fine to get your own financing outside of a dealer — and, as our story shows, it’s often much more affordable. To make matters better, if you come in with a verified offer from another lender, the dealer has an incentive to try to beat their offer.

Check your credit score yourself: Don’t take a dealer’s word on it when it comes to your credit. Your score may be good enough to qualify for a better rate on a loan elsewhere, but the dealer may not want you to know that. You can check your credit score on a number of sites for free, including the Discover Scorecard. And again, if you shop around for rates before you go to the dealer, you will know exactly what rates you deserve — and when they are offering you a bad deal.

Buy a car that works: Bring a mechanic or a knowledgeable friend to check it out before you decide. You can also check the vehicle’s background by getting a vehicle history report through resources such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, CARFAX, and AutoCheck.

Buy a car you can afford: If a dealer makes promises, be sure to get it in writing. Go in with a firm idea of what kind of car you want and how much you can afford to pay.

And slow down: Never sign a contract in a hurry. Dealers may be friendly, but they’re not really your friend. To double check a dealer’s reputability, check out their reviews and rating on the Better Business Bureau website.

Additional reporting by Mandi Woodruff

Mark Lagerkvist
Mark Lagerkvist |

Mark Lagerkvist is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mark here

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Debt Buyers Reveal Just How Far They’re Willing to Go to Settle Unpaid Debts

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Tens of millions of Americans are pursued by debt buyers, speculators who buy the rights to collect their overdue bills. Yet few consumers realize this growing segment of the collection industry may offer them a chance to slash their delinquent debts by as much as 75%.

A MagnifyMoney investigation examined the business practices of debt buyers as detailed in disclosures to their investors. Here’s how the game is played:

  • Buyers purchase massive bundles of unpaid consumer debts with face values that often total billions of dollars. Those are the bills that banks, credit card companies, and other creditors give up trying to collect.
  • Those debts are bought at deeply discounted prices, averaging roughly 8 cents on the dollar.
  • The buyers only expect to recover a fraction of the original amounts owed. Their target is to recover from 2 to 3 times more than they paid.

The bottom line: Debt buyers can turn profits that meet their goals by collecting merely 16% to 24% of the original face values. That knowledge can be useful to savvy debtors who choose to negotiate a settlement for less.

Debt buyers “absolutely” have more flexibility in negotiating with consumers, says Sheryl Wright, senior vice president of Encore Capital Group, the nation’s largest debt buyer. Encore offers most debtors a 40% discount to settle, according to the company’s website.

“There could be an advantage in terms of negotiating a favorable settlement,” says Lisa Stifler of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer advocate. “Debt buyers are willing to – and generally do – accept lower amounts.”

Stifler warned that debtors should be cautious in all interactions with debt buyers and collectors. (See “Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors” later in this article.)

In the world of debt buying, the numbers can vary. The price of bad debt portfolios ranged from 5 to 15 cents on the dollar during the past two years, according to corporate disclosures of debt buyers. The variables include the age of debt, size of account, type of loan, previous collection attempts, geographic location, and data about debtors – plus shifts of supply and demand in the bad debt marketplace.

What remains constant is the debt buyers’ goal of recovering 2 to 3 times more than the purchase price they pay for the accounts.

It is a different business model than that of traditional debt collection agencies, contractors that pursue bills for a percentage of what they recover. In contrast, debt buyers may often be more willing to wheel and deal to settle accounts with consumers.

Debt buyers raked in $3.6 billion in revenue last year – about one-third of the nation’s debt collections, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s latest annual report.

Information is scarce on the inner workings of hundreds of debt buyers who operate in the U.S. An accurate count is not available since only 17 states require buyers to be licensed.

Of the more than 575 debt buyers that belong to the industry’s trade association, only three are publicly traded entities required to file disclosures last year with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. MagnifyMoney looked into reports from two of those companies and found telling insights into an industry typically secretive about its practices.

An “Encore” of unpaid bills

Encore owns nearly 36 million open accounts of consumer debt in the U.S. through its subsidiaries Midland Credit Management, Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance, and Atlantic Credit & Finance.

During 2016, Encore invested $900 million to buy debt with a face value of $9.8 billion – or 9 cents per dollar. On average, the corporation recovers 2.5 times more than it pays for debt portfolios – the equivalent of 22.5 cents per dollar owed, according to its annual report to the SEC.

In that disclosure, the San Diego-based operation details how it tries to get debtors to pay.

Encore boasts that its proprietary “decision science” enables it “to predict a consumer’s willingness and ability to repay his or her debt.” It obtains “detailed information” about debtors’ “credit, savings or payment behavior,” then analyzes “demographic data, account characteristics and economic variables.”

“We pursue collection activities on only a fraction of the accounts we purchase,” stated Encore. “Consumers who we believe are financially incapable of making any payments … are excluded from our collection process.”

The rest of the debtors can expect to hear from Encore’s collectors. But the company knows most won’t respond.

“Only a small number of consumers who we contact choose to engage with us,” Encore explained. “Those who do are often offered discounts on their obligations or are presented with payment plans that are intended to suit their needs.”

While the company offers most debtors discounts of 40% to settle, relatively few take advantage of that opportunity.

“The majority of consumers we contact do not respond to our calls and letters, and we must then make the decision about whether to pursue collection through legal action,” Encore stated. In its annual report, the company disclosed it spent $200 million for legal costs last year.

In a written response to questions from MagnifyMoney, Encore refused to reveal the number of lawsuits it has filed or the amount of money it has recovered as a result of that litigation.

“We ultimately take legal action in less than 5% of all of our accounts,” says Wright. If Encore has sued 5% of its 36 million domestic open accounts, the total would be roughly 1.8 million court cases.

Portfolio Recovery Associates has acquired a total of 43 million consumer debts in the U.S. during the past 20 years. Behind Encore, it ranks as the nation’s second-largest debt buyer.

Its parent company, PRA Group Inc. of Norfolk, Va., paid $900 million last year to buy debts with a face value of $10.5 billion – or 8 cents on the dollar, according to its 2016 annual report. Its target is to collect a multiple of 2 to 3 times what it paid.

It is a high-stakes investment. The company must satisfy its own creditors since it borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to buy other people’s unpaid debts. PRA Group reported $1.8 billion in corporate indebtedness last year.

PRA Group declined an opportunity to respond to questions from MagnifyMoney. In lieu of an interview, spokeswoman Nancy Porter requested written questions. But the company then chose not to provide answers.

Asta Funding Inc., the only other publicly traded debt buyer, did not respond to interview requests from MagnifyMoney.

Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors

All types of bill collectors have a common weakness: They often know little about the accounts they chase. And that’s a primary reason for many of the 860,000 consumer complaints against collectors last year, according to a database kept by the Federal Trade Commission.

Be sure the debt is legitimate first

In dealing with collectors, you should begin by questioning whether the debt is legitimate and accurate. You can also ask who owns the debt and how they obtained the right to collect it.

In 2015, Portfolio agreed to pay $19 million in consumer relief and $8 million in civil penalties as a result of an action by the CFPB.

“Portfolio bought debts that were potentially inaccurate, lacking documentation or unenforceable,” stated the CFPB. “Without verifying the debt, the company collected payments by pressuring consumers with false statements and churning out lawsuits using robo-signed court documents.”

One unemployed 51-year-old mother in Kansas City, Mo. fought back and won a big judgment in court.

Portfolio mistakenly sued Maria Guadalujpe Mejia for a $1,100 credit card debt owed by a man with a similar sounding name. Despite evidence it was pursuing the wrong person, the company refused to drop the lawsuit.

Mejia countersued Portfolio. Outraged by the company’s bullying tactics, a court awarded her $83 million in damages. In February, the company agreed to settled the case for an undisclosed amount.

Challenge the debt in writing

Within 30 days of first contact by a collector, you have the right to challenge the debt in writing. The collector is not allowed to contact you again until it sends a written verification of what it believes you owe.

Negotiate a settlement

If the bill is correct, you can attempt to negotiate a settlement for less, a sometimes lengthy process that could take months or years. By starting with low offers, you may leave more room to bargain.

Communicate with collectors in writing and keep copies of everything. On its website, the CFPB offers sample letters of how to correspond with collectors.

As previously noted, debt buyers generally have more leeway to negotiate settlements since they actually own the accounts. A partial list of debt buyers can be found online at DBA International.

In contrast, collection agencies working on contingency may be more restricted in what they can offer. They need to collect enough to satisfy the expectations of creditors plus cover their own fee.

As part of a settlement, the debt buyer or collector may offer a discount, a payment plan allowing the consumer to pay over time, or a combination of the two.

“Through this process, we use a variety of options, not just one approach or another, to create unique solutions that help consumers work toward long-term financial well-being and improve their quality of life,” says Encore’s Wright.

A settlement doesn’t guarantee the debt will be scrubbed from your credit report

To encourage settlements, Encore recently announced that it would remove negative information from the credit reports of consumers two years after they paid or settled their debts. Traditionally, the negative “tradelines” remain on credit reports for seven years.

“We believe the changes in our credit reporting policy provide a tangible solution to help our consumers move toward a better life,” says Wright.

However, Encore’s new policy does nothing to speed up the removal of any negative information reported by the original creditor from whom the company bought the debt.

Check your state’s statute of limitations on unpaid debts

Before any payment or negotiation, check to see if the statute of limitations has expired on the debt. That is the window of time for when you can be sued; it varies from state to state and generally ranges from three to six years.

If the statute of limitations on your debt has expired, you may legally owe nothing. If the expiration is nearing, you can have extra leverage in negotiating a settlement. But be careful: A partial payment can restart the statute in some states and lengthen the time a black mark remains on your credit record.

Respond promptly if the company decides to sue

If you are sued over the debt, be sure to respond by the deadline specified in the court papers. If you answer, the collector will have to prove you owe the money.

If you don’t timely answer the complaint, the burden of proof may switch to you. A judge may enter a default judgment against you – or even sign a court order to garnish your paycheck.

Seek help from a lawyer or legal aid service if you have questions, but be careful of where you turn for help. The CFPB warns consumers to be wary of debt collection services that charge money in advance to negotiate on your behalf. They often promise more than they can deliver and get paid no matter what happens.

Mark Lagerkvist
Mark Lagerkvist |

Mark Lagerkvist is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mark here

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