New technology and old tactics have made buying a car a death march of deception

Mario Flores was told he couldn’t look at the documents until he signed them.

The saleslady at CardinaleWay Mazda in Corona, California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, was rushing Mario, a 20-year-old first-time car buyer, through a new loan agreement, asking him to make electronic signatures on a small tablet. When asked if Mario could see the physical agreement and all its terms, the saleslady insisted that the signature must be added in order to move forward. Anyway, she assured, it was a better deal than what he initially signed; the term was dropping from 84 to 75 months, and the interest rate from 13.77 percent to 10.99 percent.

But the printout she was showing Mario wasn’t the loan document, and it didn’t reveal other information in the contract, which he would be bound by upon signature. As Mario and his family were hustled through another screen, the man sitting next to them, an understated guy in his mid-thirties with a close-cropped beard, grew more vocal.

Jase Patrick had flown in from Miami that day to advise Mario, who had contacted Jase’s company Mozy about a loan that was full of red flags. Jase asked the saleslady if it was true that the extended warranty bundled with the deal was required to get the lower interest rate. She said it was.

Jase asked Mario and his family to leave the room.

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“How long have you been doing F&I?” Jase told me he asked the woman, using the initials for the finance and insurance department. The woman said three years. In that case, Jase replied, she should know it’s illegal to tie a warranty to a lower interest rate. He said the dealership needed to unwind the sale, and he wanted to speak to the sales manager. The woman promptly left the room.

Jase put his feet up on the desk, and the sales manager, walking in on him, asked if he was comfortable. This set Jase off. How could the manager be comfortable with jamming a young kid? According to the original sale contract, F&I had added about $7,100 in extras—the warranty, a “door guard,” nitrogen-filled tires, two anti-theft systems, and a guaranteed asset protection (GAP) policy—onto a $24,335 Mazda3. Jase called it a “box close,” where the sales agent works out a monthly payment and sends the customer to F&I—the box—to negotiate the rest, layering on as much junk as possible. Jase even alleged that F&I doubled Mario’s actual income on the paperwork to get the bank to sign off.

The initial loan, Jase figured, must have evaporated upon the bank inspecting the numbers. This new one, with the lower terms and interest rate, still represented thousands of extra dollars padded onto the sale. “It only sounds like a good deal because of how poorly they treated him to begin with,” Jase told me later. With access to fairer financing and no add-ons, Jase estimated that Mario could have saved $20,000 over the life of the loan, a figure approaching his annual income.

“This is the ideal customer,” Jase said. “This is what they train for.”

The sales manager denied that the interest rate was tied to the warranty, and said that Mario could take it off. But Jase wanted the whole deal cancelled, and for Mario to get the $2,500 back that he already put down on the vehicle. And it seemed like he wanted more, too: some signal that confusing and squeezing customers was the wrong way to do business. So he asked for the owner.

About ten minutes later, the general manager walked in. Jase explained the situation; the general manager claimed he never heard of a box close, though he later conceded that completing a deal in F&I was common. He also didn’t like having his authority questioned, asking Jase how he knew so much about selling cars.

“I’ve been doing this 15 years, OK?” Jase told me he said. “I’m a regional finance director and now I have an F&I company, and we are bringing an ethical way to doing F&I. And you’re going to ruin this industry if you keep doing business like this.”

The manager threw Jase off the lot and threatened to call the cops for trespassing.

MOST CONSUMER SPENDING IN AMERICA, at least for now, has become standardized; you pay the price offered or find another product. Homes and autos, the biggest purchases most Americans will ever make, are more a matter of negotiation. Cars have a suggested retail price, but just about everything else—trade-in value, financing rate, dealer markup, optional extras, and ultimately the total payment—is up for discussion.

It’s an uneven negotiation from the beginning. Customers don’t spend their every waking hour thinking about how to buy a car, but they’re up against an entire architecture that does—a small army of sales, F&I, and service staffers, and a tight network of managers and dealers. They have deep experience in these transactions, and practiced techniques for how to maximize revenue.

The result is an experience that most people view as a grinding, tortuous journey, being upsold and pitched and bombarded with numbers until they resign themselves to the egregious overcharges as the price one must pay to get behind the wheel. A March survey found that 86 percent of auto customers expressed concern about hidden fees, and 76 percent lacked trust in dealership pricing.

Even a completed CARS rule, Jase Patrick believes, would not fully stop dealers from engaging in prohibited behavior.

Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, told me about a public comment she received from a veteran, who likened the experience of car-buying to preparing for war. “It was such an apt way to put it,” Khan said. “You’re kind of gearing up for battle every day to be pitted against corporations that have so much more money and resources and information, to just try and make sure you’re not getting harmed.”

As a tool in the fight, the FTC has introduced the CARS rule, which stands for Combating Auto Retail Scams. The rule attacks the most deceptive practices of the auto buying experience. Under the rule, dealers must provide up-front pricing, including the total amount paid after financing, not just the monthly payment; obtain “real consent” for all add-ons rather and not tie them to lower finance rates or rebates; and only charge for products deemed to have real value. The FTC estimates the rule will save customers $3.4 billion a year.

But in January, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) filed suit to block the CARS rule, calling it “terrible for consumers… because it will add massive amounts of time, complexity, paperwork and cost.” The lawsuit remains under active litigation.

Even a completed CARS rule, Jase Patrick believes, would not fully stop dealers from engaging in prohibited behavior. “We’re not ready for it,” he told me. “There’s going to have to be a widespread effort to tell the police that you arrest people when this happens.” He cites as evidence his years of service inside the rooms where auto dealers perfected these techniques. He’s now on a quixotic quest to establish more honorable business practices in the industry. Getting to that place is a steep drive on rough terrain.

JASE PATRICK’S CRUSADE AGAINST UNETHICAL AUTO DEALERSHIPS has a comic book-style origin story. He grew up poor in a tiny town in Texas, at one point living in Boys Ranch, a community for at-risk children. Working odd jobs as a teenager, he managed to save up $4,000. He wanted a truck, and he found one in an advertisement. Jase was 18, just out of high school.

The dealership switched him to a different truck than the one he came in for, and spent hours getting him to agree to an unfavorable deal while tacking on a warranty, in many ways treating him like Mario Flores was treated years later. “I tried to talk to the dealer,” Jase told me. “He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do, I’ve got more attorneys than you can shake a stick at.’”

Within a few months, Jase couldn’t make the payments. The default stayed on his credit rating for years. “Four years later, I was ready to marry a girl, I proposed to her. And I went to go buy the ring, and she had to sign for the ring because I had such bad credit problems,” he said. “And she never, she never looked at me the same way again.”

After Jase graduated college, he committed to pursuing an engineering degree in Canyon, Texas. He went to sign a lease on an apartment, and was told he couldn’t see the lease until he signed it. Jase taped the leasing agent telling him this, and the incident landed him on the local news. “The property manager did add they should have treated Patrick with more respect and they’ve been reprimanded for that,” said the ABC7 Amarillo anchor at the end of the segment.

The incident brought Jase back to thinking about that truck he bought in high school. He decided then and there: If you can’t beat them, join them until you can beat them.

Two months later, he got a job selling cars in Dallas, and displayed an inherent knack for the business. The work took Jase to Miami, America’s home base for flim-flam. Sales workers are lightly trained and assured that all the practices dealers engage in are legal. But as Jase moved up the ladder into F&I, and then became a regional finance director, the doors were opened to him on how auto finance really works. He could expose it, if he was willing to cast aside the comfortable lifestyle that invites silence. (Regional finance managers make a few hundred thousand a year.)

“I always had this nagging at me, that maybe I could shake things up in the industry,” Jase explained. “Maybe by giving others the tools to make it happen.”

As with Jase’s first truck, the deception begins before ever greeting a salesperson. “The price online is only to get people into the dealership, it has zero correlation with what they pay,” he said. Sometimes multiple dealerships post deals for the same car. He framed the ads as fishing expeditions for the “ideal customer”: someone who wants a car, cannot pay in full with cash, and is willing to listen to financing terms. The ideal customer, in Jase’s recounting, is disproportionately young, disproportionately female, and disproportionately a person of color. If done right, the dealer can take that individual and create a customer for life.

Once the customer chooses a car—or is steered to one—the haggling begins at sales. The sales agent makes a trade-in offer and tries to stuff in the ubiquitous extras, often claiming they are already placed onto vehicles and cannot be taken off. Jase showed me a list of the actual costs of some of these extras. An “edge guard” for car doors costs about $10 on Amazon; Mario was charged $695. The “nitrogen-filled tires,” the FTC states, frequently contain no more nitrogen than what is found in ordinary air.

The “ShadowMark” or “Etch” theft protection system is an engraving of the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the body or windows of a vehicle, which is purportedly useful in theft recovery. Mario’s car had ShadowMark booked at $550; the product itself, according to Jase, costs 50 cents. In several states, etching the VIN onto the vehicle is a free service. Jase talked to a woman at a local government auto theft task force in Lubbock County, Texas that does free etching. She could not recall a single vehicle being recovered because of it, and said it was mainly useful if the vehicle was disassembled. The woman added that a dealer once attempted to charge her $1,500 for VIN etching, and she had to tell them her employer did that for free.

ACCORDING TO AN EXPERIAN SURVEY from May, over the past three years between 80 and 85 percent of new vehicle purchases are financed, and as much as 40 percent of used vehicles. F&I is the profit center of the dealership. Jase explained that profit margins per vehicle sale run between five and ten percent. In other words, if you want to make $1 million in additional profit, you have to sell $10-$20 million in additional inventory. That’s as many as 500 cars, when the average dealer is selling 100 to 200 cars a month. To do that, you need more salespeople and a bigger lot, with uncertain outcomes for all that expense.

But raising F&I, Jase says, is 100 percent profit. The same labor and operations costs are in place, whether you sell more warranties and insurance or not. That’s not theoretical. The 2023 annual report for Lithia Motors, a nationwide dealership network with 298 U.S. locations, indeed lists its profit margin for F&I at 100 percent. Lithia’s 2022 annual report says the same thing.

One of the biggest tools in the F&I toolkit is delay.  Usually, a customer comes out of sales with some sense of the monthly payment. “Once you have the person committed to that payment,” Jase said, “it’s up to the finance person to maximize profit… We have people in the box. They’re boxed in, they can’t go anywhere. Don’t let them out of the box until deal is closed.” The extended wait time sealing the deal creates a sunk cost that customers don’t want to repeat by starting over somewhere else. And it wears down their defenses to every new offer.

Jase has a name for the overall process: The Dealership Triangle, with each point funneling the customer to the next step. The seller is pushed from sales, where installation extras are added, to F&I, where more extras and markups happen. And a major goal for F&I is to sell a service contract—a catch-all term that includes warranties or other insurance bundles—thereby creating a service customer. By Jase’s estimation, more than three-quarters of all buyers maintain brand loyalty by buying their next car at the dealership where they have a service contract.

Dealers create “leg” on a deal by adding service extras, some of which can be duplicative. Guaranteed asset protection (GAP), which is supposed to cover remaining balances on an auto loan if the car is totaled or stolen, is also offered by insurance companies rather than dealers, who will fold GAP into the loan and add interest. Some warranties and maintenance contracts merely reiterate what’s standard on the vehicle, some have exclusions that make them worthless, and some are just fraudulent; the FTC has noted contracts that bundle free oil changes for electric vehicles, even though EVs do not require motor oil.

“The money is coming from creating that leg,” Jase said. “You’re telling the customer, ‘For $100 a month you can get warranty, GAP, maintenance, everything.’ They say, ‘that’s great, I can’t afford it.’ The easiest objection is price.” Dealers are trained in manipulating facets of the loan to make the cost seem reasonable. For example, to maintain the monthly payment, F&I can extend the term of the loan, thereby increasing the total cost of financing on the back end.

The gross per unit total of finance charges was $2,406; for the 78 percent of vehicles that were dealer-financed, it rose to $3,080.

Borrowers and even regulators are trained to think a lot about the interest rate. But lenders and dealers are more interested in the highest “carry”—the biggest loan they can fund. The two are connected, of course; a higher loan-to-value ratio will usually spur a higher interest rate. But lenders are looking for volume over interest rate.

The time in F&I is supposed to be spent “shopping” the loan to different lenders, looking for the best deal. That makes it sound like there’s some trading pit with lenders making competitive bids. But lenders don’t really compete for the customer; they compete for the dealer. So if the dealer can snag a better interest rate, the customer may not see the benefit. “Most banks give a prime rate, maybe 6.5 percent, and the dealers mark it up,” Jase said. Those one or two “points” on the deal sends more profit to F&I; for a subprime loan the spread is even higher.

The Experian survey shows that “captive” financing, from auto companies’ own credit and lending services, takes the largest share of loans from dealers, followed by banks and credit unions. On new vehicle financing, captives consumed a 61.75 percent market share in the first quarter of this year, compared to 49.6 percent just two years ago. The captive loans often have enticing terms like rebates or zero percent interest; dealers benefit by getting get a flat fee on a captive loan, and being able to use the attractive terms to add leg.

F&I’s practices can add up. Jase showed me raw numbers from a Honda dealer in the Dallas area. The gross per unit total of finance charges was $2,406; for the 78 percent of vehicles that were dealer-financed, it rose to $3,080. There were 4.63 add-ons on every deal. Most of the profit comes from the add-ons; the interest-rate markup or flat fee for the loan only averaged $511. And Jase believes that Honda is on the low side of F&I income.

Customers find this hard to escape because they have no window into the process, blocked from viewing the different lending options directly and often told that they cannot use pre-approved financing from their bank or credit union. NADA, the auto dealer trade group, insisted to the FTC and consumer advocates back in 2012 that dealer financing is optional, but to the customer, it feels mandatory.

Jase calls this “forced financing.” He showed me paperwork from someone who got caught in a 75-month loan with a bunch of add-ons when she would have qualified at the same payment for 60 months. “The dealership has a monopoly on the customer’s finances,” he said.

ONCE THIS SALE IS MADE, CONTRACTS HAVE TO BE DRAWN UP. And here is where Jase uses a word that industry analysts would recoil from: fraud.

He showed me a customer’s purchase agreement with a dealership in south Florida, and then a finance contract between that customer and the lender, which was printed hours later at 2:00am. The numbers didn’t match. The finance contract has a fee that was not in the original paperwork. Based on his collection of dealership finance documents over the past year, Jase estimates that something like this—inconsistent numbers, additional charges—happens 50 percent of the time.

Jase’s view is that F&I sells something to the customer and then has to recreate that sale in a way the bank will actually accept. But if a loan is too dodgy and the lender balks after seeing the real numbers, dealers can spin that into opportunity as well. One of the practices Jase talked about is called the “yo-yo” scam. The customer spends hours buying the car. Then the dealer calls a couple days later to say the deal fell through, and resells them the financing, typically charging more. The customer already has the car and is mentally prepared to keep it; they’re probably going to pay the price to not have to trudge through the gauntlet again.

Despite the fact that past regulatory efforts were so focused on disclosure, it’s incredibly difficult for customers to get their hands on the real paperwork to see any possible discrepancies. While dealers give customers plenty of documents to maintain compliance with regulatory disclosures, the legally binding ones are harder to extract. Not only does this protect dealers from exposure on dodgy deals, it frustrates efforts by customers to refinance out of the loans that dealers put them into. Dealers lose their financing commission if the customer pays off the loan within 90 days, so they have an incentive to play games with the paperwork. Some dealers claim outright that no refinancing can happen for 90 days. There is no legal waiting period for a refi, though delays in registering vehicles can impact things.

This difficulty in obtaining documents became clear when I asked followers on social media if they had financed a car purchase within the past three years. Jase and I talked to ten customers from around the country about their experiences.

Customers told us familiar stories about persistent upselling. Jaime Sahagun of Orland Park, Illinois said that after he test-drove a used Kia in January 2023, the Nissan dealer explained that it pre-installed expensive LoJack anti-theft technology on the vehicle, which was not mentioned in the online advertisement. For Marc Lucier of West Palm Beach, Florida, it was $5,000 in pre-installed accessories, which were curiously not pre-installed. “I felt the car and said there wasn’t any [paint protection] coating on this car,” Lucier told us. “He said they put that on when they wash the car. I said that’s not how a ceramic coating works, it’s a six- to eight-hour job. I think it was a car wash with a ceramic additive in it that you could get at Autozone.” (Lucier eventually got $3,500 knocked off the extras.)

George Hamilton from Woburn, Massachusetts helped his daughter buy a Toyota Corolla. “She saw it and started getting way too excited,” he said. “We negotiated a price… then [the dealer] came back and it was $2,000 more.” After some negotiation the dealer added $2,000 in rebates, but said that if Hamilton went with his own financing, some of the rebates would go away. Jase described this practice as “holding,” basically using the rebates as a bargaining chip. Hamilton figured he could always refinance later to get a better rate, but the dealer said their financing would have to remain in place for six months to maintain all the discounts.

Patricia Taylor winced as she described getting sold a $2,995 service contract on a Chevy Bolt EV in South Carolina. “This is super-embarrassing to say to another person,” she conceded. Bo Mesick got talked into a newer-model Civic hatchback at a Honda dealer in Culver City, California, with some more of those pre-installed accessories. His term started at 60 months, and after the eight-hour process it jumped to 72.

We also talked to Blaisey Arnold of Shelby, North Carolina, who made waves earlier this year by posting a series of videos on TikTok about her and her partner’s outrageously expensive truck loans; $1,400 and $1,600 a month, respectively, with double-digit interest rates. Even Jase had to concede that Arnold made a terrible financial decision, and the public largely agreed; she was subjected to a torrent of mocking comments about her financial illiteracy. “But in my inbox,” Arnold said, “people were messaging me that they don’t want everyone to see, but they’re in the same boat.”

The common thread was the difficulty of getting the documents after the fact. Hamilton could only extract a one-page term sheet and a billing statement. Taylor produced a blurry sale agreement, but it didn’t include a copy of the service contract she purchased. Peter Bartholow of Los Angeles was told he would have to email the general manager for paper copies of his documents. Lucier was told documents were only available in digital format, but when he demanded hard copies, he was given 90 pages. Buried inside he found an arbitration agreement that was signed electronically. “Most people will sign anything just to say I’m done, it’s my car,” Lucier said.

As Jase explained, “Everybody gets this treatment, it’s just a matter of who can navigate out of it.”

THERE ARE NEARLY 17,000 DEALERSHIPS ACROSS AMERICA, but dealers typically control local monopolies; if you want a new Ford, there’s the Ford dealer in your area. As Alex Sammon has written, they are not only politically powerful in their communities, the kind of people who sponsor Little League teams and local picnics, but collectively they wield power through well-connected Washington lobbyist groups. Dealers routinely contribute tens of millions of dollars to congressional campaigns each cycle; the guy who arranged Donald Trump’s $175 million bond so he could appeal his civil fraud suit is a subprime auto lender.

Several members of Congress are former auto dealers; one of them got dealers exempted from oversight by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While auto lenders are still subject to oversight, in 2018 the Republican Congress overturned CFPB guidance on lender compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Many practices are common across dealers because they talk to each other in what are known as 20 Groups, a peer collaboration network originated over 70 years ago. Owners in 20 Groups from across the country discuss strategies and share information at meetings several times a year. NCM Associates, which sponsors 20 Groups, calls them “a focus group for your business challenges.”

Joshua Feygin, an attorney in south Florida whose practice mostly involves suing auto dealers, told me that “It’s shocking what dealerships do and are able to get away with.” The arbitration agreement and class-action waiver Marc Lucier found in his paperwork is present in every financing agreement; Feygin said that sometimes multiple arbitration clauses conflict with one another. This limits discovery and appeals, and puts consumers up against what is often an industry-friendly tribunal. “Even if you do win, it doesn’t mean you’ll get paid,” Feygin added, as dealerships have a habit of disappearing amid legal liability.

This is an even bigger hurdle in Florida, where politics and the judiciary lean toward businesses, and auto dealers in particular. In Florida, consumers must send a pre-lawsuit demand letter to dealers outlining whatever violation they allege, and dealers have 30 days to respond. A recent ruling affirmed that if dealers comply with the demand letter, consumers cannot seek statutory damages.

I asked Feygin, if the law is so stacked against him in Florida, why he continues to take auto dealership cases. He sighed. “I ask myself that every day.”

CFPB has still tried to get involved in overseeing auto deals through the lenders. Last February it initiated an auto finance data pilot, seeking information from nine large lenders. Jase sent an 11-page comment to the CFPB about the project in March, arguing that seeking data on final loan terms neglects deceptive practices at the dealer level and “the nuances of customer journeys.” But of course, CFPB can’t look at the dealer experience.

That falls to the Federal Trade Commission, which can take individual action against dealers, like the $3.6 million settlement with Sage Automotive Group in 2017, or a more recent action against Manchester City Nissan in Connecticut this January. But with 17,000 dealers undertaking very similar practices, a dealer-by-dealer approach is barely a flyspeck. That’s why the agency hopes the CARS rule can systematically crack down on bad actors.

The rule prohibits “material misrepresentations,” whether on the advertised cost of the vehicle, its financing, add-on products, rebates, discounts, down payments, trade-in value, or other information. The dealer would have to clearly disclose the offering price, with no hidden charges or “mandatory” add-ons. VIN etching, nitrogen-filled tires, unnecessary or other essentially worthless additions could not come at a cost. An FTC official told the Prospect that the rule really only addresses conduct that’s already illegal, but it gives the agency additional remedies to police the market and highlight the worst practices.

“It’s crazy that we have to create new laws to enforce the old laws that are already there,” Jase said. Of course, for now the rule is stuck in the garage due to the National Auto Dealers Association’s lawsuit. But even if it passes that test, nearly 16 million cars are on track to be sold this year. The FTC doesn’t have agents in every city poised to enforce its rules. It relies on its consumer complaint process, advertising sweeps, and whistleblowers to generate leads on bad actors.

That would include people like Jase, but the scale of dealer practices, he argues, makes effective enforcement impossible, unless the customer is given more information and control to make their own decisions.

Dealers should have to prove compliance with these rules and regulations, rather than regulators waiting for complaints.

JASE’S FIRST IMPULSE WAS TO MAKE HONEST DEALING a business model. He hooked up with Ethos Group, a company that partners with dealers “to promote an ethical, customer-focused approach” to sales and financing. “I was almost satisfied with staying there,” he said, “until some of the promises I made in the industry didn’t come to fruition.”

He then moved out on his own, starting a company last year called Mozy. The name was derived from helping customers “mosey” through the auto purchasing process. (Jase has a few companies; one of them, a technology firm called Glia Mobility, “founded” Mozy.) Jase offered customers a forensic examination of their dealership finance paperwork; Mozy subsequently offers refinancing to customers that it estimates could save them an average of $1,100 in unnecessary charges.

The problem with the business was that Jase couldn’t find enough customers, and even when he could, the dealership resistance to supplying paperwork frustrated refinancing within the 90-day window. Jase wanted to use a program that would give him a notification when dealers run a customer’s credit, providing a pool of potential refinancing targets. The credit bureaus said he couldn’t use it because their bank partners wouldn’t allow it. While there are obvious privacy concerns to giving private companies leads on people whose credit has been run, to Jase it was an example of the closed system. “They won’t allow you to try to offer better terms to their customers,” he said.

But even the modest number of purchases he saw really shocked him. “I can’t believe it’s still so blatant,” he said after the Flores case. “I was shielded, because I was only working with dealers that wanted to do F&I in an ethical way. So now that I’ve been doing this on my own for a few years, it’s very sad.”

Today he’s more of a lone wolf, fighting the system one customer at a time. “I tossed in my business hat and put on my American hat,” is how Jase puts it. In March; Jase flew out from Miami to L.A. for 24 hours just to tag along with Mario Flores. After the manager kicked him out, police arrived and de-escalated the situation. Jase succeeded in getting Mario’s money back.

In April he joined Anayansy Hernandez at a Brickell Mazda dealership in south Florida, as she tried to buy out her lease on a 2018 Buick Encore. The original lease document included $850 in GAP insurance and a $354 add-on for something called “ValueShield”; it was missing the customer’s initials for each. ValueShield is a product that enhances trade-in value for cars that wind up in accidents; because there is no trade-in on a lease, it was essentially worthless to Hernandez.

The F&I manager presented a new lease contract, which had the ValueShield cost rolled into the agreed-upon value of the vehicle. The new lease had what seemed like electronic signatures and initials where there were none before. Jase asked the F&I manager for the initial worksheets on the deal. The manager first said the dealer didn’t keep those worksheets, then modified that to say he didn’t have to give them to the customer. When Jase asked for the paperwork on ValueShield, the dealership sent him to that company, which sent him back to the dealership. (Eventually he did get that paperwork.)

A general sales manager arrived and asked why Jase was so concerned about a three-year-old contract. Jase calmly showed him the missing signatures and explained how no bank would fund such a thing. Then an attorney came in, with a brand-new lease contract, which had the date of the lease (July 5, 2021) crossed out and another date (July 7) written in. Jase suspected the signatures were once again not authentic, because Hernandez never came back to re-sign. “I want to be clear, because I’m a friend, not a foe. If I had 30 days to live I would still be working in the car business,” Jase told me he said to the dealer staff. “I’m here as a businessman, because we are colleagues, I’m humbly telling you that this won’t work anymore.”

Indeed, in the sales records, Jase found that the car was re-listed for sale on July 6, 2021. That means the dealer “un-booked” the deal and then re-booked it, with new calculations, using an older e-signature from the customer to memorialize it. The general sales manager wasn’t entirely wrong; the deal was old, the customer was buying it out with cash, and it’s kind of in the past. But Jase has a drive to unwind all the false promises and documentation, to reveal the truth.

Incidentally, neither Cardinaleway Mazda in California or Brickell Mazda in Florida responded to requests for comment. In fact, when I contacted them both, the dealerships texted, emailed, and called back to see if I wanted to buy a car. When I told them I was actually a journalist seeking comment about another customer’s purchase, they didn’t respond.

AFTER MARIO FLORES’ CASE, JASE FOLLOWED UP with every state and federal agency he could think of. The California DMV said the dealer “committed no crimes the DMV can prosecute.” The state attorney general doesn’t represent individual citizens, and said maybe the information would be helpful in developing “patterns of business activity.” The California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation determined the case was out of their jurisdiction, and suggested referring to national bank regulators. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau took the complaint to Capital One, the lender; Capital One said they were not “physically present” at the sale, and to contact the dealership. The FTC took a complaint but does not provide individual consumer updates.

I sat in on a call between Jase and the district director for state Assembly Member Bill Essayli, who represents the district in Corona where Flores’ dealership is located. “There’s very little that a consumer can do,” Jase told the legislative staffer. “These are junkyard bullies when going into a dealership like this. It’s like a prison yard in there.” The staffer said even he had some problems figuring out where to go with such a complaint. He said he’d circle back later.

Jase has sent detailed comment letters to CFPB and FTC about their efforts. He’s talked to state legislators in Texas and members of Congress about the problem. He has very definitive ideas on what needs to be done, a kind of manifesto for fixing the industry.

In his view, there should be a mandatory video recording of all offers of financing, add-ons, and service contracts made to customers, allowing for definitive proof. Customers should be able to access the all-in book value of any car, with optional add-ons, when they see it online; they should be allowed to review worksheets remotely or use any platform of their choosing, online or in-person, to purchase a vehicle. Forced financing should end, and the process should be segmented, so the vehicle price is agreed to first, then the trade-in value, then the financing, with disclosures that the dealer is not obligated to act in the customer’s best interest along the way. And finally, all paperwork necessary to refinance the vehicle should be provided at signing.

Dealers should have to prove compliance with these rules and regulations, rather than regulators waiting for complaints. Multiple violations should lead to penalties like the inability to access tax breaks or federal funds, like rebates on electric vehicles.

This would attack the “foundational pillars” that make auto sales miserable: the time suck, the control that dealers hold over customers, the information asymmetry, and the inability for consumers to expose dealer practices. A comprehensive framework like this is far off; the FTC is just trying to fight dealer litigation get its CARS rule across the line. In the meantime, Jase is methodically collecting the paperwork, and plotting his next move.

“I think we’re going to sue these dealers,” he told me. “I don’t want money. I want to send people to jail… I’m a cowboy from Texas, I’m going to die on my sword.”

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David Dayen