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July 21, 2014

If You Can’t Trust Consumer Reports to Keep Your Info Private…

Filed under: Autos,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:07 am

  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.


car pricing service

At the bottom of the ordering page is a link to their privacy policy (which actually takes you to a “privacy policy highlights” page). The full privacy policy is summarized in relevant part below:


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:

car pricing 1

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:

build & buy 1

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:

build & buy 2

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.


Mouse Print* asked Consumer Reports to explain why R.L. started getting so many phone calls and emails after signing up for their pricing service considering their privacy policy seemed to forbid sharing of her personal information. And we also asked, if her contact information was being improperly shared, what they were going to do to correct the situation.

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 hel​d​ accountable for high customer satisfaction. Consumer Reports does not share any personal​ly​ 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.

Here’s our take: In an effort to make it appear that Consumer Reports was providing services itself to consumers to help them with car purchases, they rebranded services provided by a third party — TrueCar. Despite tiny disclaimers explaining the deal that Consumer Reports has with TrueCar, most people would have no idea that an independent third party was providing the actual service. So few consumers would realize that parts of Consumer Reports’ privacy policy allowing information to be shared with third parties actually applied in the case of these services.

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.

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  1. If I want to buy something I will call you, thank you.

    It is disappointing that Consumer Reports would have a partnership with a third party service that would share information with voracious dealers. Any dealer so desperate for a sale that they would call within a few hours of being provided a random person’s information is probably not a dealer that I want to do business with.

    Comment by Wayne R — July 21, 2014 @ 8:36 am
  2. If I answered the phone and it was someone trying to sell me a car, I would tell them that I am buying a car and I will 100% never buy from them, even if they had the best price.

    Comment by Max — July 21, 2014 @ 9:27 am
  3. That does it. I have not relied on consumer reports for some time and will now cancel my subscription.

    Comment by Richard — July 21, 2014 @ 10:26 am
  4. I have used the KBB site to check out cars. Made some recent purchases and had no problems unless you request a dealer to contact you. A few are exceedingly aggressive and that is enough to turn me away. We went through this when my daughter was in the process of purchasing a Jeep Patriot. Some real bait and switch when you show up. We did, however, run into several that were just the opposite. Negotiated a reasonable price (as noted by several online sources) and that was that.

    I soured on CU many years ago. I found far too many of their evaluations unreliable.

    Comment by Rick — July 21, 2014 @ 12:26 pm
  5. CR has run a scam of sorts for years. They send you a solicitation for you to become a subscriber. They offer “Two Free Issues.” If you don’t like the magazine, write Cancel on the bill and owe nothing, and you keep the 2 free issues. That’s all well and good. However, if you DO want the subscription and pay the bill, those free issues are no longer free. They have become the first two issues of your new 12-month subscription. I pointed this out to CR and of course never got a response.

    Comment by Richard — July 21, 2014 @ 3:37 pm
  6. This doesn’t surprise me. Back around the time Consumerist was purchased by Consumer Reports, I found I couldn’t log into the site. When I emailed asking for assistance, I was informed that I was banned and my account disabled. No warning that I had violated any rules, no notification that my account was gone, nothing. They just didn’t want me anymore. Absolutely the -worst- customer service experience I have ever had–far worse than anything from Comcast. Now, I just ignore CR and their ilk.

    Comment by Shawn — July 22, 2014 @ 2:19 pm
  7. I still trust Consumer Reports. Nonetheless, you did an excellent job of documenting how/why this situation occurred. Thank you Edgar.

    Comment by Jon Randolph — July 22, 2014 @ 4:27 pm
  8. When I last purchased my vehicle, I:

    1) went to the manufacturers site to identify what I wanted.
    2) went to edmunds and kbb to see what a reasonable price was
    3) went to a local dealer and test drove and explained to the dealer how I would buy
    4) e-mailed every dealer in the radius I was willing to drive (including the salesman who gave me the test drive) and:

    a) Identified the make/model/trim/colors
    b) identified the options/packages I wanted
    c) identified what extended warranty I wanted
    d) identified the maximum mileage the vehicle could have on it.
    e) identified I was ready to buy
    f) identified that this e-mail was being sent to multiple dealers

    I then asked for an “out the door price” on the vehicle.

    For those unaware, an out the door price includes everything (cost, taxes, shipping, dealer prep, etc.).

    I could then was able to compare prices, play dealers off of each other and I received what I believed was a fair price for my vehicle. All in the comfort of my office.

    Comment by Tim — July 22, 2014 @ 7:38 pm
  9. This is very disappointing to hear, especially about Consumer Reports. I had something like this happen when I joined just because I made my phone number available to “potential employers” (note that I read the fine print and privacy policy carefully and was assured outright that I would not receive telemarketing/scam calls.) Well, the first day I must have received 20 calls from not just employers but all sorts of companies for all sorts of products. I called to complain to Monster and was apologized to and told that there was something in the “fine print” about allowing these calls if I left a box checked. Now mind you, reading comprehension was my strong suit in school, so I knew there was a lot of verbal BS involved in the fine print to obscure this fact from even the best of readers out there. Anyway, suddenly the phone calls stopped, but only after 3 desperate calls begging them to “stop the insanity”.

    Anyway, Consumer Reports is less trustworthy than it used to be before the internet. I rely more on owner opinion when it comes to products. 1,000 fantastic reviews on can’t be wrong and I have often seen consumer opinion at odds with Consumer Reports. Which just goes to show how subjective their opinion is.

    Comment by Renée — July 24, 2014 @ 7:40 am

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