Consumer Reports offers a Car Pricing Service for $14 that provides car buyers with the invoice price of vehicles, as well as an even lower price — the Consumer Reports “bottom line” price — that subtracts out all dealer incentives, holdbacks, and rebates. It is a handy report for arming you with information to negotiate a deal more effectively.
R.L. of Massachusetts recently complained to Consumer World that immediately after signing up for the Car Pricing Service, she was inundated with telemarketing calls and emails from car dealers.
Here’s what happened. Not wanting to place her order online for a report on a 2014 Toyota Highlander, R.L. called the auto price customer service number at Consumer Reports at 800-880-4874. They took her contact information, email, phone number, etc. and said she would be receiving an email. She asked the representative to hold on to make sure she could access the report. She quickly breezed through its various sections. Just after R.L. hung up the phone, it rang. It was a local car dealer offering to sell her a 2014 Toyota Highlander. R.L. told him basically what he could do with his car and she called back Consumer Reports to complain that they had shared her personal information with car dealers. Consumer Reports responded “we don’t share that,” according to R.L., and told her that she could complain to “corporate” about the issue.
R.L. says that on the day she placed her order for the Consumer Reports pricing report, she received 15 to 16 phone calls from dealers from as far away as Florida (at least that’s what the caller I.D said), and about a half a dozen emails. By a point 10 days later, she said she had received another half dozen to a dozen phone calls and a total of about 30 emails. R.L.’s phone, incidentally, is on the do not call list.
According to a disclosure on the Consumer Reports website, the company does not share your email when buying one of these reports.
If you (the consumer) disclose your personal information to third parties, their privacy policies govern, and not those of Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports only provides third parties with enough information for them to carry out the service for which they were hired. Other than that, third parties are seemingly authorized to only use anonymous data from Consumer Reports in most cases.
In the case of the Car Pricing Service, Consumer Reports jointly provides the reports with a company called TrueCar. And they have recently begun offering a free bonus when you buy a car pricing report — access to the Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service operated by TrueCar. Build & Buy shows you discounted prices that local car dealers are offering on the car that you were just researching. As described, it is a service that the consumer can take advantage of if he/she so chooses, rather than a service that somehow automatically inundates users with sales offers.
…your identity is hidden from them [dealers]. If you choose, you will then have the option to send your contact and vehicle information to any of the dealers, and the dealers’ identities will be revealed to you.
What appears to have happened to R.L. is this: while she was perusing her car pricing report, she unknowingly entered “Build & Buy,” clicked a “next” button, and that sent dealers her telephone number and email address.
Before you criticize R.L. for poking around without reading, you have to see how Consumer Reports presented these pages to her, along with the representations they made.
The top of the first page of the Car Pricing Report looks like this:
Most people would be interested to see what real dealers are charging, so the temptation to click “View Dealer Pricing” is strong given its prominence on page one.
After clicking twice, you are brought to this page asking you to verify your contact information:
Only the most observant person would recognize that they left the Consumer Reports Car Pricing Service and were now in Consumer Reports Build & Buy. The consumer is assured that the reason they are being asked to enter their name, telephone and email is this:
In order to ensure your dealers honor your Guaranteed Savings, we collect your basic information.
There is no disclosure there whatsoever that the reason they are collecting your contact information is so that dealers can call and email you after you go a little deeper into Build & Buy.
So one innocently fills out the form, and then you see prices for your chosen car from three local dealers:
Since the dealers’ names are not disclosed yet, the natural inclination is to click the “next” button which is labeled “Get Your Certificates.” These certificates have the location of the dealer and the discount price each one has guaranteed to offer you. Only if you catch the third bullet on the left do you see what really is going to happen next.
By clicking next, your information will be shared only with the dealer(s) you select. Your personal dealer representative(s) will call you within 24 hours to discuss availability.
You just, maybe unwittingly, gave this service permission to send your telephone number to a bunch of dealers. And although you didn’t give explicit permission to share your email, they will also be sending that to the dealers.
Incidentally, it appears that only these three dealers will receive your contact information. And Consumer Reports cleverly has the box pre-checked for each one to get your information.
Consumer Reports explained how their site works and what likely happened to her. They also offered this statement:
…we provide a seamless connection to a customized Build & Buy service, powered by TrueCar, that connects consumers directly with auto dealers to get competitive prices from local dealers who are held accountable for high customer satisfaction. Consumer Reports does not share any personally identifiable information with third parties unless that is explicitly stated and required as is the case with our Build & Buy service. We regret any inconvenience that [R.L.] may have had as a result of using our product and have reached out to TrueCar to ask that [R.L.] no longer be contacted by any participating auto dealers. — Director of Communications and Social Media
R.L. explained to us that she was so upset that her information was shared with third parties because it was Consumer Reports that was doing the sharing — the last company she would expect to not respect her privacy.
Worse, explicit statements on the sign up page for both services said the consumer’s email would not be shared (Car Pricing Service) or misleadingly said that contact information was only being collected so that the saving promised would be honored by dealers (Build & Buy).
Consumer Reports/TrueCar could certainly provide the exact same Build & Buy service without passing on the consumer’s identity and personal contact information to car dealers. Both the consumer and the dealer could get written confirmation of the dealer’s name, the specifications of the consumer’s desired car, the price promised, and a code number representing that individual potential customer. Then, if the consumer chose to visit a particular dealer, the dealer could verify the offer by matching the code number given to the consumer with the one in their system.
We urge this most respected of consumer organizations to take a hard look at how they are presenting these car buying services, so that every user clearly understands when their personal information is going to be shared, and what the consequences of this sharing are — potentially a deluge of phone calls and email offers from local car dealers.