Buyer beware when buying a used car in mid-Missouri

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COLUMBIA — Steven Hughes thought he found the perfect car for his family of six — until the title proving he owned the vehicle never came.

“I was beginning to get upset, my wife was getting upset, and it was causing stress between us,” Hughes said.

“It was almost painful to try and keep our composure between the two of us when we knew it wasn’t something that was a problem between the two of us.”

The dealership legally had 30 days to get the title to Hughes, however after almost 90 days of not receiving the title, he was done waiting. Hughes went to the dealership to return the car he could not drive without proper documentation showing his ownership of the car. He demanded a refund and took his business to a different dealership. Hughes isn’t the only one with auto-related stress.

In fact, obtaining a proper title for a used vehicle is a national issue. Auto-related complaints rank among the top 10 national consumer complaints according to the Federal Trade Commission. Joe Bindbeutel, Chief Counsel of the Consumer Protection Division in the Missouri Attorney General’s office, deals with a lot of consumer complaints. He explained that before driving off the lot with a new car, consumers need to ensure all of the paperwork is in place.

“Delay signing the papers until that title is in the packet of documents, until you see it and you can drive off the lot with that title,” Bindbeutel said.

Car titles aren’t the only problem buyers may encounter when looking for a new ride. It’s important to understand all of the fine print before you pull out of the lot.


Whether you’re looking for cars on Craigslist, Facebook or any other online seller, all paperwork should still line up. Buyers need to know what they are getting and who they are getting it from.

“Sometimes folks will offer to sell you a car and they don’t own the car. It’s owned by somebody else. Let’s not even start by talking about Craigslist,” Bindbeutel said.

Columbia South License Office manager Kyle Allen provided a few pointers for potential buyers. Allen said there are ways to avoid scams. You should always take a careful look of what is written on the title. He advised buyers to be careful if you see there is a lien on the title. A lien is the right to keep property until debt on that property is paid off.

“Make sure the car dealer does have the title in hand,” Allen said. “If there is a lien on that title, make sure there is a lien release that follows with that title before they walk out of that dealership.”

Allen also advised buyers to get a safety inspection for the car and run the vehicle identification number (VIN) to make sure the car has a legitimate title on it.

“I can tell you buyer beware of Craigslist or anything online,” Allen said.


When looking for a used car, you may pull into a dealership and see flags on either side of the driveway with

“Buy Here! Pay Here!” written in big, block lettering. If you decide to purchase from these lots, pay close attention to all paperwork.

“Buy here, pay here is a come on to very quick and easy credit approvals. Those are exactly the kind of dealerships you have to watch in terms of this very title problem,” Bindbeutel said. “They’re not really selling the car. They’re not making money on the car, they’re making money on the debt, and a lot of these are dangerously close to essentially a payday loan in terms of the exorbitant interest rates.”


Avoiding problems when buying a car is not so difficult if you do your homework.

“There’s so many people out there that have no knowledge of what to expect at a dealership or what you can do to keep yourself informed and make sure that you’re not getting handled by the dealers,” Hughes said

Buying a car can be a very confusing and harmful process if not done correctly. To help make sure everything runs smoothly, be sure to check all of the boxes recommended by Allen and Bindbeutel before driving off the lot.

  1. Did you do your research? Did you lookup the dealership, person and car?
  2. Do you have the original, real title in your hands before driving off of the lot? Did you see it?
  3. Did you get the car inspected?
  4. Did you run the VIN number?

If these steps are followed correctly and you still encounter problems, call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline or file a consumer complaint on the Attorney General’s website.

(Editor's Note: has updated this story to note there are six people in the Hughes family.)

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