When Ashley McAdams bought a used car at Pine Valley Motors, she was offered a used baby car seat as part of the deal.
The dealership had recently repossessed the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, and the car was still filled with the previous owner’s belongings, McAdams said. A salesman told her she could do whatever she wanted with the baby car seat, stroller, and bills inside the vehicle, or he could take them out, McAdams said. She wanted only the car.
“So he literally took the stuff out and threw it in the dumpster,” said McAdams, 25, of Hammonton.
The strange scene in December 2017 at the Berlin, Camden County, car dealer would foreshadow McAdams’ own experience with the vehicle and the high interest rates she’d need to pay to keep it. Just three months later, Pine Valley Motors took the car out of her driveway in the middle of the night after she missed “one or two” $100 weekly payments, McAdams said. The dealership had the right to plant a tracking device in her car and a gadget that could disable the vehicle, according to her contract.
It may seem like slim odds that the dealer repossessed one car from two owners in three months. But that was just part of the business model at Pine Valley Motors, according to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. The repeated repossessions also shed light on an industry that has deployed new technology to track and reclaim cars from buyers with poor credit.
Pine Valley Motors and its sister dealership, Nu 2 U Auto World in Clementon, Camden County, repeatedly sold old cars at inflated prices to low-income consumers, then repossessed and resold the cars over and over once owners defaulted, the state claimed in a lawsuit this month. The state seeks to close the dealerships and ban the owner, Kenneth Cohen, from owning or operating a car dealer in New Jersey. It also asks for unspecified civil penalties and restitution.
Cohen declined comment.
The suit takes aim at two “Buy Here Pay Here” car dealers — auto retailers that typically sell vehicles to low-income consumers who can’t get traditional auto loans. These dealerships handle the financing in-house and often impose double-digit interest rates. To ensure repayment of risky auto loans, the dealers often attach GPS monitors and devices that can remotely keep cars from being started.
Supporters of the industry say it provides transportation to customers with poor credit histories. But consumer advocates have accused dealerships of saddling financially vulnerable consumers with auto loans they can’t afford and using abusive repossession tactics. About a quarter of Buy Here Pay Here customers default on their payments, according to a February report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Frontier Group, a think tank.
Cohen’s car dealerships expected customers to lose their vehicles, the state claimed in a complaint filed March 5 in Superior Court in Camden County.
Customers were forced to sign documents barring them from keeping personal possessions in their vehicles, the suit said. The dealerships also required consumers to hand over copies of their keys. By selling over-priced cars to consumers who could not make payments, the dealers could reclaim the vehicles and start the “sell, finance, and repossess” cycle all over again, the state said.
A 2002 Acura TL was sold five times in one year, the suit said. A 2009 Chevy Malibu sold six times in three years. And a 2006 Dodge Charger had eight different owners over five years.
What’s more, the state claimed that the dealers sold old cars with high mileage at inflated prices. For instance, a 2006 Mazda with an estimated value of $1,867 was sold for $8,995, the complaint said. In some cases, the dealers required down payments that nearly covered the estimated value of the cars and offered loans at interest rates exceeding 24 percent, the state said. The dealer demanded payments on a weekly basis.
“Buyers who could least afford it were paying exorbitant prices for road-worn vehicles and financing them under terms so oppressive, it all but guaranteed they would default on the loans," Paul R. Rodríguez, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said in a statement. “To add insult to injury, too many consumers were left without a vehicle to take them home or to work, letting the dealership quickly resell the car to another unsuspecting customer.”
In July, the state Motor Vehicle Commission suspended Nu 2 U and Pine Valley’s vehicle dealer licenses, claiming they sold vehicles without having their titles, the suit said.
In interviews and on social media posts, customers said they were sold junk cars that quickly broke down. Consumers said defaults and outstanding balances ruined their credit. A few Facebook users described a heartwarming story that took a dark turn when Nu 2 U gave away a car around the holidays before the transmission failed.
“They repo’ed the car because I refused to pay for a car that didn’t work,” said Brian Woods, a 36-year-old Runnemede resident. He said he made a $1,100 down payment on a 2005 Ford Five Hundred that stalled while his fiancé was driving. “That car should have never been on the road to begin with.”
Nu 2 U’s own Facebook posts have consisted more of body parts than car parts as of late. Recent posts include crude jokes, a topless woman, and an optical illusion of a bald head that looks like a person’s behind. The last post of an automobile was on Jan. 30 with a picture of a car made of wood with the caption “Toyota Poor Runner.”
The Buy Here Pay Here industry has been criticized by consumer advocates. In their report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group said the dealers often “sell overpriced vehicles, offer expensive and often unaffordable loans, or use sneaky sales tactics.”
But Ken Shilson, president and founder of the National Association of Buy Here, Pay Here Dealers, said the auto retailers are a “misunderstood industry that is unfairly characterized.” The dealers, he said, are among the few willing to lend cars to consumers with “deep subprime” credit scores. Customers often have prior defaults or bankruptcies, he said.
If not for these dealerships, tens of millions of Americans “would be on foot,” he added.
Buy Here Pay Here dealers account for roughly $71 billion in outstanding debt, a small fraction of the $1.1 trillion in auto loan debt nationwide, Shilson said. The industry has accounted for as much as $100 billion in debt in the past, he added.
“We are a lender of last resort. We are the financing source to people who can’t get any other credit,” he said. “The [interest] rates we are charging and the technology we’re using is to control the high level of risk we have.”
That technology drew the attention of New Jersey lawmakers, who passed a law in 2017 regulating the GPS and starter-interrupt devices. Among other provisions, the law bars dealers from remotely disabling a motor vehicle while it is being operated.
McAdams, the former owner of the Hyundai Sonata, said she thinks Pine Valley Motors tracked her car with a GPS. She said she drove home after 2 a.m. one night in March 2017. By 5 a.m., the car was gone.