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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Autofacts/Credit Union

Ask an auto dealer these days about the Autofacts Program and Remar Sutton and you’ll likely see a flush of indignation. Remar is the vocal author of “Don’t Get Taken Every Time,” a best selling paperback about the ways and means of customer fleecing by many auto dealers. Now he has joined forces with the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) in the most ambitious program ever to educate as many members of credit unions in the U.S. as want to learn how to secure better auto-buying and financing deals.

Credit Unions have long been active in financing auto purchases for their members. But they have done little to educate their members to avoid the sales pressure and clever “hype” of the auto business. Consequently, many consumers pay more for the wrong car — hundreds or even thousands of dollars more once the diverse financing bilks are totaled. Dealers, especially the growing conglomerate dealer chains, are pushing several profit centers — new cars, trade-ins, financing, insurance, add-ons, extended warranties, service contracts and fees. They add up to a labyrinth of pitfalls and traps for the unwary.

And don’t the sales managers and salespersons know the types of unwariness! The easiest sales targets are (1) people who let their enthusiasm show; (2) anyone who believes that a nice person will sell them a car for less; (3) people who believe that buying a car is one transaction; and (4) people who care about only one aspect of the buying process: payment size, trade-in allowance, differences between the cost of the old and new cars.

CUNA’s package of auto customer alerts includes the large AutoFacts Manual, a staff-training video, a member video and the AutoFacts Library. The idea is to have auto advisers on the staff of Credit Unions who will give advice on hidden dealer charges, finance charge calculations, credit life, new-car warranties, the state’s “lemon law” and other seasoned counsel. CUNA’s expectation is that the more members who call for this advice, the more money they’ll save and the more low-cost new-car financing the credit unions will provide to bring in revenue and keep costs down for all member services.

It is about time that credit unions — the only fast growing sector of the consumer cooperative movement — show a willingness to confront powerful, local auto dealers with such buying skills. Merely telling their members not to put down any deposit until the sales manager signs the contract, or never buy on the first visit to the dealer, or always leave if you feel any pressure, is enough to raise dealer hackles.

Auto dealers and their associations have to be among the most vengeful merchants around. They have badgered radio stations who have the peripatetic Remar Sutton on their programs. Dealer advertisements have been pulled off the air in retribution. In Louisiana recently, Sutton arrived to find his appearance on a radio station cancelled. Similar pressure by dealers is placed on more than a few newspapers.

Indeed, I have heard numerous other stations — television and radio — tell me how dealers drop their ads in response to consumer reporting about car selling practices. The intimidation factor is part of many dealers’ public relations strategy. Almost never do the dealers engage in debates with their critics.

Next month, the AutoFacts program with a media tour featuring the jovial Remar Sutton. With it, consumer education will reach new frontiers and may start registering savings of billions of dollars yearly that now are going undeservedly into the swelling coffers of the ever larger, chain

auto dealers. For this effort is no miniature start. With over 50 million members, thousands of credit union offices and assets well over $120 billion, a grand consumer force is bearing down on the auto goliath for the first time.