WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Dings, dents, or damage from a car crash can haunt your vehicle years down the road. So car manufacturers are selling used car buyers on a service that won't accept cars with a frightening past.
"They said it's the closest to a new car used you can buy," explained pre-owned certified buyer Peter Brown.
Brown bought a certified pre-owned car that was selected for the program after a 300+ point inspection. Brown relied on that inspection, never doing one of his own. It's a costly mistake that surfaced a year later.
"We paid $24,000 for the car and a year later they offered us $13,000," explained Brown.
To unlock the mysterious drop in value, we put mechanic and auto expert witness, Bob Richardson of Auto CG, to the test.
"You're sort of testing me. You said you tell me," explained Richardson.
He looked for evidence that the car was repainted, repaired, and realigned.
"We know this has been repainted we have the tape line here," Richardson said.
He also found mismatched gaps on either side of the hood.
"The fit and finish is a dead giveaway right away," explained Richardson.
Within minutes, Richardson suspects the car was in an accident.
We showed him pictures of the wreck.
"There you go," Richardson explained.
With only a flashlight, Richardson shines a light on a dark problem which the owners said they weren't told about despite a 300 plus point inspection.
"When you see these pictures should this car be certified?" we asked Richardson.
"I don't think so," Richardson remarked.
The South Florida Automobile Dealers Association said the inspections look at the tires, engine and transmission rather than body issues.
"I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right. I think consumers are getting ripped off," explained Richardson.
"I think it's costing consumers billions of dollars a year," explained consumer lawyer Bob Murphy.
Murphy, said drivers are paying 10 to 15 percent more for a certified vehicle since it's advertised as a top of the line program that only accepts cars that pass its thorough testing.
"It's a gimmick. It's just a way to install false confidence in a person in a vehicle that may have serious problems," explained Murphy.
While consumers may feel cheated, Murphy said manufacturers who offer the selective program are purposely selective in what they tell you in their marketing.
"The fact of the matter is, the program does not exclude wrecked cars. It should," explained Murphy.
General Motors said fender benders are allowed in the program, but a car that was in a major accident with frame damage will not be certified.
Drivers need to do their own detective work.
"I paid $40,000 for a certified vehicle," explained driver David Philpot.
You can't rely on a clean CARFAX or vehicle history report.
"I really had no inkling to suspect it was in a wreck," explained Philpot.
He realized something might be wrong when the mechanical issues began adding up like uneven tire wear and alignment problems in the back.
Philpot closed in on the problem when he took his car in for repairs.
"They went back and pulled the CARFAX and low and behold 3 months later after I purchased the vehicle CARFAX reported substantial damage to the vehicle and that's the first time I heard about it," explained Philpot.
Data is often delayed or never reported to vehicle history reports.
"A clean CARFAX does not mean it's a clean CARFAX. There are ways to keep a vehicle off the radar and it happens every day," explained Richardson.
Richardson also inspected Philpot's truck, and quickly spotted evidence of a wreck.
"I think it's a new practice. I don't think it's acceptable. I think it's deceiving," explained Richardson.
This is a national issue and consumer advocacy groups are pushing the government to pass rules to stop this practice, and define what "certified" really means.
Lawyers say it's tough to sue in these cases because most buyers sign an arbitration agreement when they purchase the vehicle that prohibits you from suing.
You can only resolve the disagreement in arbitration if you sign that paperwork. With arbitration, Murphy said you don't have a right to appeal the decision.
Before you buy, have your own independent mechanic inspect any vehicle. This service typically costs $100.