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Used cars can hide dangerous accident histories

Purchasing a used car rather than a new one is a good way to save money, but buyers don't always know what they're getting.

When Amber Keller bought her first car, she had one big fear:  "That I won't have a car after about a month or so," she said.

Buying the wrong used car can cause all sorts of problems down the road.

"It's really difficult to pick out the signs of damage," said Chris Basso, public relations manager at Carfax, a company that provides vehicle histories for used cars nationwide.

We teamed with Carfax to set up a used car challenge at Mall St. Matthews  in Kentucky. We lined up three used cars in the parking lot -- an Infiniti, a Lexus and a Mercedes-Benz. One of the three was involved in a wreck so severe that both airbags had deployed.

We asked five shoppers if they thought they could spot the damage.

"I think I can beat it," said Derek Silliman, a car lover.

"A lot of times you find signs of telltale paint or primer," added Walter Hayes, circling the used cars.

But our used car challenge wasn't as easy as the volunteers thought. Most picked the Infiniti as the car they suspected of being involved in an accident.

"I just have a feeling," Adriana West said when asked why she chose the Infiniti.

Amber Keller thought she saw something a little more concrete. "There's a little scratch on the back," she said, pointing to the bumper.

Silliman picked the Infiniti, too. "It was the only one that had any little imperfection," he said.

As it turned out, the Mercedes-Benz was the car that was in the accident. Only one person, Carol Cameron, guessed that part right. However, Cameron had no idea what was really wrong.

"It seemed as if the dash was slanting down a little bit," Cameron said.

But the Mercedes was damaged in a rear passenger-side impact accident that was bad enough to throw the car permanently out of alignment. But the repair was so good, even some experts might not have seen the warning signs.

"An average person would miss that," said Cary Donovan, vice-president and director of used vehicle operations for Sam Swope Auto Group. "A lot of car dealers would miss that!"

So why does it matter?

Basso said if you buy a car that's been in a wreck and it hasn't been properly repaired, you or your family could be at risk.

"The consequences could be that the car is not going to protect you in a subsequent accident," Basso said, adding the vehicle "could be a ticking time bomb."

The only way to diffuse a situation like that is a vehicle history report that includes important information about a used car's past, including accident records.

Many used car dealers will provide a vehicle history report at no charge. If you're buying a used car from a private seller, you can also buy a vehicle history report online for $30 to $35, and catch what the naked eye does not.

Kentucky and Indiana do not have "lemon laws" that cover used cars. However, there are several other types of laws that can be used to help you in the event you discover that you've bought a used car lemon.

First, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has what's called the Used Car Rule that requires dealers to provide consumers with a Buyer's Guide, with warranty and other types of information. If the dealer has in any way failed to abide by the FTC Used Car Rule, you may have the basis for a legal claim.

Second, each state has what are called Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) laws. If the dealer has, for example, made verbal promises or didn't tell you about issues relating to your used car, you may have a cause of action.

Finally, the Truth in Lending Act and the Federal Odometer Act might also be valuable in obtaining lemon justice if a dealer is found to have violated those requirements.

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