Car scam investigated

Old Towne Auto Sales in Summerville seems to have closed its doors.

SUMMERVILLE — Troy Benton wanted a new car. He got a financial mess.

The 65-year-old retiree is one of several people who have complained to Summerville police about Old Towne Auto Sales, a local dealership. Instead of a new car, Benton said he still has his old pickup. And he appears to be on the hook for nearly $40,000 in loans and liens.

"I can't afford it," he said. "I don't have no money, and now it's going to mess up my credit."

If anybody else is in the same situation, investigators want to hear from them.

The complaints follow a similar pattern. The transactions included the payoff of a trade-in vehicle and the purchase of another from the lot, according to a news release and police reports. Some buyers told police their old vehicles weren't paid off and that they couldn't register the new ones because of outstanding liens.

Benton's situation began in July when he traded in a 2005 Dodge Dakota pickup for a 2004 Ford Mustang. The dealership was supposed to cover $13,000 remaining on the pickup. Benton took out a $15,000 loan for what he would owe on the Mustang.

About a week ago, he received the first sign of trouble. It came in the mail from a credit union that gave him the original truck loan. They were asking him why he canceled the insurance, so he got back in touch to tell them he sold it.

He soon learned the truck was still in his name, but the Mustang wasn't — and the car had a $10,000 lien on it. He even contacted the car's previous owner, who had traded the car in at the same place.

Nobody from the dealership at 711 W. 5th North St. could be reached for comment Thursday. The offices appeared to be closed, and no cars were left on the front lots.

A telephone number went to a voice message informing callers that the business is closed. A Web site, www.oldtowneautosales.com, still works and advertises "free oil changes for life." There are, however, no vehicles listed on the sites inventory.

Police said reports of suspect transactions date back to May.

The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs said there are some steps buyers can take to protect themselves after the purchase.

"Unfortunately, if they're already in this, it's going to be an uphill battle," Maria Audas, a public information coordinator, said. "Not impossible, but difficult."

Donna DeMichael, the department's director of consumer services and education, said they are starting to see more complaints about car dealerships not providing good titles or paying off liens on trade-ins. As such, consumers should try to do business with "reputable" dealerships. They can call the Consumer Affairs Department to see if any complaints have been filed before going shopping.

If they find that their trade-in was not paid off, DeMichael recommended calling police. Buyers have the right to go to civil court to sue for conversion or breach of contract. They also have these options if they are unable to get a title for the car they bought.

Some businesses maintain insurance or have a bond to cover these situations, she said. The consumer might be able to file a claim even if the seller has gone out of business.

Reach Noah Haglund at 937-5550 or nhaglund@postandcourier.com.