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Lemon Law: A Lemon Itself?

It wasn't until after Margaret Hargrove bought her used Jeep for $32,000 that she discovered it had a history.

What the dealer didn't tell her was that her car was a salvage vehicle, heavily damaged and made to look good. In other words, a rotten lemon.

"I got suckered," Hargrove says.

She's not alone. It's estimated that each year more than a million wrecks are rebuilt and resold. Often, the consumer isn't told. Disclosure laws vary from state to state, and that is why Congress is set to approve a new national standard.

It's called the National Motor Vehicle Safety, Anti-Theft, Title Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and it sure reads like a consumer-friendly piece of legislation. But a long line of critics will tell you not to judge this book by its cover.

"This bill is nothing more than an attempt to legalize fraud," says Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.

Here's what consumer advocates and 39 state attorneys general don't like: The bill exempts cars more than six years old—almost two-thirds of American cars—and cars worth less than $7,500. To be marked salvage, a car would have to be damaged in excess of 80 percent of its value, and consumers would lose the right to sue deceitful dealers.

Senator Trent Lott, R-Miss., is the bill's sponsor. He says: "Consumer protection against defective automobiles is my goal."

Margaret Hargrove is suing her dealer, and she's got a better chance of getting her money back today than she would have under that new federal law. But for now, she's stuck with a car that she's been told is too dangerous to take on the road.

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