Business gave misleading valuations, OFT says

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Media captionWatch: Aileen Armstrong from the Office of Fair Trading says customers were misled by the company

Internet car buying company bought cars for hundreds of pounds less than the original valuation, a regulator has found.

An investigation into the company found that 96% of customers received less than the original website valuation.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) ordered the company, which advertises widely, to make its operations clearer.

The company said that the problems did not reflect current practice.

Targets set

The OFT investigation found that consumers were given the impression that they would be paid the online valuation if the company's onsite inspection matched the condition entered by the seller online.

But once at the appointment, some customers found that other factors reduced the final price from the headline valuation, including "market conditions".

The OFT also found that vehicle inspectors were set targets regarding the purchase of vehicles, sometimes to reduce the valuation offered by up to 25% when they looked at them.

The OFT investigation covered July 2009 to June 2010.

By August 2010, the company had 114 branches throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

Other concerns highlighted by the investigation included:

  • Giving the misleading impression to consumers that their online valuation was only valid for seven days
  • Failing to assess customer complaints in a "fair, reasonable, consistent and professional manner"
  • Not making it clear that the next working day payment service - which cost customers £24.75 - was optional

"Selling personal possessions through the internet is increasingly popular, especially in these tough economic times," said Cavendish Elithorn, of the OFT.

"But it is important that the headline figure is not chipped away at by the buyer, because it makes it very difficult for consumers to shop around and find the best deal."

Website update

The company and its directors have signed undertakings that include promises to make clear that the website valuation is not a price at which the company is offering to buy the consumer's car and that a range of other factors might be taken into account.

Richard Harrison, chief operating officer of the company, said: "In the early days, we were operating a new business and defining a new market sector and we did not get it right for every single customer. This was a long time ago and is not reflective of the business we are today."

He said the company had now put all the OFT's demands into place. It had updated its website, offering the choice of a faster approximate valuation or a more in-depth accurate valuation, he said.

It had also invested £300,000 in a training programme.

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