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

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Updated on Friday, June 2, 2017

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