Conditional delivery: how car dealers use it to scam buyers

If you’ve ever bought a vehicle from a dealer and financed the purchase, chances are you signed something called a conditional delivery agreement. If you read this agreement carefully, it states that the dealer has the right to cancel the sale if the dealer can’t assign your auto loan to a lender on terms agreeable to the dealer. In other words, if the dealer changes its mind about the deal, it has the right to unwind the transaction. This provision, typically in the fine print of the sales contract, is the source of one of the most widespread auto frauds and applies to both new and used car sales.

Here’s how the scam works: you agree to buy a vehicle and you fill out a credit application for financing. The dealer tells you that you’ve been approved for the loan and you sign the loan agreement and other typical sales paperwork, which contains the conditional delivery language. You either don’t notice this provision because it’s in the fine print or the dealer tells you it’s nothing to worry about. So you give them a cash down payment and turn over your trade-in. The dealer gives you the keys to your new car and you drive it home thinking you’re all set.

But you’re not. A few days later, the dealer calls you and tells you that your financing “fell through” and that you need to bring the vehicle back and sign a new loan agreement. If you complain, they might threaten to repossess your new vehicle or even to call the police and report it stolen. So you go back to the dealership. And you learn that your trade-in has already been sold and that the new loan that they’re demanding that you sign has a higher interest rate than the one you originally agreed to. Although you don’t want to sign this new agreement, you don’t have a choice because your trade-in is gone and they’ve threatened to repossess your new vehicle and keep your downpayment if you don’t agree to the new, less favorable, loan on the spot. You need the new vehicle to get to work and to drive your kids to their activities, so you reluctantly sign the unfavorable new loan.

Dealers call this practice conditional delivery or spot delivery. Consumer advocates call it a “yo-yo” scam. Either way, it’s a blatantly unfair and one-sided practice. The dealer doesn’t want you to think about the deal overnight, it wants the deal closed on the spot. On the other hand, the dealer wants to keep its options open after you’ve driven the car off the lot. It doesn’t want to be rushed into a hasty deal. The conditional delivery agreement makes the deal final for the buyer, but not for the seller.

Sometimes the yo-yo scam is simply the dealer re-thinking the terms of the sale after the fact. Other times, it’s a deliberate scheme from the beginning to inflate the finance costs. There’s evidence that dealers target customers with poor credit or low income. In other words, dealers use the yo-yo scam to rip off people who can least afford to be ripped off.

Although the conditional delivery provision in the contract gives the dealer some legal cover, there are ways to attack this unfair practice through a lawsuit. If you’ve been a victim of a yo-yo scam, you should discuss the situation with an attorney right away.