Secretary of State drops Auto Mall investigation

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Angelina Gant is still looking for answers. 

Three years after she bought a faulty Dodge Journey from the Auto Mall of Champaign, she hoped that two, state-level investigations into the dealership could bring her the justice she feels she deserves.

Gant is one of dozens who say they bought from the now-shuttered used car business to find out shortly after that their vehicle was riddled with problems. 

So when she learned from WCIA that Illinois’ Attorney General and Secretary of State were investigating the Auto Mall, she was hopeful that, at least in one of them, she could find some sort of recourse. Gant’s car stopped working not long after she bought it — and while that was three years ago, she’s continued to put money into its repairs. 

“I couldn’t even begin to tell you what all (my mechanic) did,” Gant said Thursday. “He told me what (he’d) seen was ridiculous. He said he didn’t understand how the car worked this long. He said the car should have blown up — my car was leaking gas. He could smell fumes inside my car. I have three children — we could have blew up in that car and not known anything.” 

But one of those investigations into the Auto Mall is already over — and it didn’t fault the dealership for anything.

Secretary of State spokesperson Dave Druker said recently the only reason that office got involved was because officials learned the Auto Mall was voluntarily shutting down, liquidating its inventory, and planning to sell it all at a dealers-only auction upstate. 

WCIA’s Target 3 team confirmed that would happen before the Secretary of State shared the information — and it did: 234 vehicles were sold at a Manheim Chicago auction on October 31, with bids for the vehicles coming in from dealerships across the state. 

The Secretary of State’s office did not find any wrongdoing on the part of the Auto Mall, Druker said.

Legal recourse for used car buyers

Now, of the two confirmed a month ago, the Attorney General is the only office still investigating. 

There’s no guarantee the AG’s probe will result in any recompense for potentially defrauded buyers.

But there are legal protections — and courses of action — for anyone buying a used car from any dealership, John Roska, an attorney for Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in Champaign, said.

There’s not a “lemon law” covering used cars in Illinois — that law only applies to new cars — but there are relatively legal protections for used car buyers that guarantee limited protections.

“…it used to be the law that you could disclaim all warranties, so you could say that the sale was ‘as-is’, and there were no warranties,” Roska said. “So if the car broke down on the way home, you were out of luck.” 

That’s what happened to Gant — who said her car “started smoking” on the drive home. 

That’s what happened to Kelli Murphy’s daughter — who used her waitressing money to buy a Cadillac that “barely made it home.” 

Neither of the women could get any answers when they approached the dealership — nor could they get any repairs, either. In Murphy’s case, she said, Auto Mall employees pointed to the ‘as-is’ clause and shrugged.

But both of those women bought cars in 2016 — a year before Illinois law was modified so that “the old days of the as-is sale no longer apply,” Roska said. 

“In the old days, you used to be able to use this buyer’s guide that said, ‘as-is, no warranties,’” he said. “That was the old days. Now, that’s modified by (a 2017-era) Illinois law that says there is a dealer warranty.” 

The warranty covers the powertrain for 500 miles or 15 days. 

“For that short period of time, if the powertrain breaks down, the seller must repair it, and the most they could charge the buyer is $100,” Roska said. “It’s very limited, it’s a very short period of time, but it covers the situation when the car breaks down and you’re immediately, like literally, on the way home.” 

There are some stipulations — the car’s odometer must clock fewer than 150,000 miles, for one.  

And after that 15-day or 500-mile period is up, “after that, it could be as-is,” Roska said.

If a dealer doesn’t sell a car with a warranty like that, Roska said the consumer is entitled to money back. 

“And if they don’t sell it with a warranty — for example, if you buy that car, and they give you the old warranty or they say no, there’s no warranty, then you’re entitled to cancel the sale and get a refund,” he said. 

And if any car repairs under the warranty are such that the dealer can’t fix it, customers again are “entitled to refund,” Roska said. 

The law only applies to dealerships, which state law defines as entities selling more than five cars in a 12-month period. 

“Sales between individuals, things off Craigslist — that really is the Wild West,” Roska said. 

Not all dealerships are going to comply, and that’s where the courts come in. 

“If you can’t work it out by agreement, the only way to work it out is by suing,” Roska said. “That’s your alternative is to try to work it out by negotiation with the dealer, but if they won’t talk to you, then you have to go to a lawyer and sue.”

The statute of limitations for the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act — which is likely what such a suit would fall under — is three years from the purchase date of the car. 

A spokesperson for the AG’s office declined to specify the scope of the investigation into the Auto Mall.

If there were violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act — by any entity — that could fall under their purview, Roska said.

“But my understanding is that the AG usually doesn’t handle individual cases unless they’ve received a lot of complaints and on the basis of that, they want to take action,” he said.

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