• 2 Investigates: Customers say they were tricked into buying lemon cars


    COWETA COUNTY, Ga. - Channel 2 Action News has learned state regulators are investigating a local car dealer and the resale of several vehicles once branded as lemons.
    Buyers told Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland that they had no idea their used car purchased from Southtowne Motors was a former lemon.   
    "I have spoken personally to 36 consumers who bought lemon cars from this dealer who didn't know it was a lemon," said Carrollton consumer attorney Michael Flinn.
    Each buyer signed the Georgia Lemon Law Notice form, acknowledging they were fully aware the car once had a defect and that the car maker took it back.   
    The customers say they got duped at the document table.
    "The documents were all in a stack, and we just went one-by-one and started signing," said Corvette buyer Avanti Helton.
    "There's no doubt you signed it, but you had no clue you did?" Strickland asked Buick buyer Phil Kaufman.  
    "No. No clue at all," he said.
    Flinn says there's a practice called a five-finger-fold, in which a customers’ sees only the signature line and never gets to read the full closing document.
    "This is your bill of sale. Sign here. This is your as is statement. Sign here," said Flinn during a demonstration. "It makes me mad."  
    The dealer is angered by Flinn's accusations.
    "He is, by making these cases, calling us liars, cheats and thieves.  We're none of those things," said Southtowne owner Hal Philipson.
    Philipson showed Strickland the multiple forms buyers sign that deal with the car's former lemon status. He contends there would be no way to slip all of them passed a customer.
    "We are 100 percent sure that we disclose everything we need to these customers," Strickland said.
    Since the deals in question, the store has started using big lemon yellow stickers, proclaiming a car a buy-back, as another layer of transparency.   
    A 2014 Corvette, branded for a faulty dashboard light, will sell for $20,000 below the usual price, said Philipson.
    "It's not a lemon," he proclaimed.
    Philipson says he's sold between 500 and 1,000 former lemons over 10 years.  
    Many of the cars come from California or Florida, states where even minor problems can get the car branded.
    Flinn has already sued Southtowne three times.  A Coweta County judge has ruled for the dealership twice, and a third suit is still pending.  
    Avanti Helton is involved in the latest case.  The Corvette he bought for more than $40,000 appraised at Carmax for $19,000.
    "They just took $20,000 from me," said Helton.
    Philipson vows to buy back any of his former lemons at what he calls a fair market price.  
    "We love these cars. We think they're a great value. We think they fill a terrific niche, and we'd love to have 'em back," said Philipson.
    State regulators could not release to Strickland every document requested for this story, acknowledging some of them relate to an ongoing investigation of the dealership.
    "The state says they're investigating. What do you say about that?" Strickland asked Philipson. 
    "They're doing what they're supposed to do, investigating.  And we know that we've done everything right, and they won't find any fault," he said.

    The Office of Consumer Protection will not comment on its investigation. Flinn plans to appeal the two cases he has already lost. 
    Flinn advises car buyers, who are not inclined to read each document in its entirety, to at least read the top of every document.
    The Georgia lemon law form states what the documents represents in bold letters at the top.

    There is no question what the customer is buying if this form is part of the deal.

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