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Watch out for certified used cars with safety defects

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“Certified” used cars are supposed to provide shoppers reassurance that the vehicles been fully inspected and any defects fixed. But under a new Federal Trade Commission ruling, a dealer can now advertise used cars as certified -- even if it hasn’t fixed a safety problem under a recall notice.

This could include such dangerous vehicles such as those with exploding Takata airbags that can cause fatal injuries.

Used cars being sold with unrepaired safety defects 03:16

I have often recommended certified used cars as a good option because of their supposedly careful inspections and additional warranties, often backed by manufacturers. But this ruling seems to signal a new fend-for-yourself era for used-car buyers.

The FTC decision came in the form of a settlement with General Motors (GM) and two used-car chains. It states that they can advertise cars as certified without fixing safety defects, if they post notices that the cars could be subject to recall and inform consumers where they can check out such recalls. 

The ruling runs counter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s policy, which has called for used cars to have safety recalls fixed before they’re sold. But the safety agency doesn’t have the authority to compel such fixes.

Auto dealer suing competitor to try to stop sales of recalled cars 04:16

The FTC claims it, too, lacks the authority to order these fixes. But consumer groups vehemently disagree.

“The FTC”s reckless action will result in more people being killed and injured because of unsafe, defective used cars,” said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. Her organization, in cooperation with five Democratic senators, has led opposition to the FTC ruling since it was first proposed earlier this year. They contend that the agency could order the repairs. 

If federal regulators aren’t going to protect you as a used-car shopper, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself.

  • Don’t buy any used car without checking for recalls. Get the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of any car you’re considering and put it into the National Highway Traffic Safety recall lookup tool. That system will show you any outstanding recalls that haven’t been fixed. You can often do this from internet ads that list a used-car’s VIN.
  • If a dealer tries to sell you a car with an unfixed recall, move on and try elsewhere. Check any car advertised with a VIN, and don’t consider it unless it’s free of recalls or has had any recalls fixed.  
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