'Death-traps' on the road as car fraud rises: David Nicholson-Lord reports on a survey highlighting the growth in illegal practices by dealers

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FRAUD BY used-car dealers is on the increase because of the recession, according to a report published today. More dealers are 'clocking' cars - turning back the mileometer - and masquerading as private sellers to avoid customer protection laws.

Many of the 400,000 accident- damaged vehicles written off each year by insurance companies are also being rebuilt by dealers and returning to the roads as 'potential death-traps', according to the survey by the Automobile Association and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration.

Based on responses from Britain's 120 chief trading standards officers and an analysis of complaints to the AA, it says that specific consumer protection for motorists is non-existent and calls for new legislation to protect car-buyers similar to the 'lemon' laws of Australian, New Zealand and some American states, which give specific rights of rejection or compensation to buyers of cars with latent defects.

Cars on dealers' forecourts should be subject to more roadworthiness checks, it adds. Cars written off after accidents because repair would be too expensive are increasingly subject to 'cut and shuts' - the building of an apparently whole vehicle from the remains of at least two others.

An AA spokesman added: 'At present you have got absolutely no idea whether a car you are thinking of buying has been rebuilt or not. You could be quite innocently driving round in a cut-and-shut job and you won't know anything about it. The one occasion you do find out is when you are in an accident and the car comes apart.'

The AA and the institute want details of mileage and any insurance write-off to be included on a car's registration document.

In 1990, clocking cars was estimated to cost consumers pounds 100m in lost value. According to trading standards officers, whose annual conference is being held in Brighton today, the increase in clocking is partly a result of a decline in the number of genuine low-mileage cars on the market, itself a result of recession. Clockers are also more 'blatant', making little attempt to hide their tampering and arguing their case 'all the way to the court'.

The report says that 6 million used cars are bought every year and the 65,000 complaints to trading standards officers they generate are 'probably only the tip of the iceberg'. Complaints about car repairs and servicing have also grown by 11 to 15 per cent each year for four of the past five years. 'Practically anyone can set up a garage to repair and service vehicles and there is minimal control over standards of workmanship and often very little possibility of redress or compensation if things go wrong,' it adds.