It’s an often-heard refrain in these times: people duped by mortgage lenders, car dealers or finance companies to take on debt they can’t afford. On the edges of their vast reservation, Navajos have been especially vulnerable to questionable car sales tactics.
For many there’s a language and cultural barrier.
More than a hundred people filled the Dilkon Chapter House on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona recently to share their tales of car-deals-gone-wrong. Most were elderly and some drove 200 miles or more to attend.
Eugene Price spoke Navajo and English into an echoing microphone. He said when he bought a new pickup truck in Flagstaff last year, he left his old truck on the lot. He thought he was making a trade. The car salesman told Price the dealership would pay off the rest of the loan on the old vehicle.
"Glory be we were on sky nine," Price said.
But then the old lender started calling, demanding payments on the truck Price thought he had traded in. He didn’t know that he had walked away from the dealership with two loans and one truck.
"I kept telling them that we don’t have the vehicle anymore," Price said.
Consumer rights attorney Veronika Fabian said this is a pretty common practice.
"The thing I think is the most egregious is leading Navajo consumers to believe they’re trading in their vehicle, when they are not," Fabian said.
Over the years the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has received many complaints about unfair car sales practices in towns bordering the reservation. One often heard -- a yo-yo sale. That’s when the dealer lets the buyer take the car home before financing is approved. Then, when financing doesn’t go through, the salesman gets the buyer to sign a contract the consumer can’t afford.
The number of complaints about all kinds of deceptions has finally risen to the need for hearings.
Fabian has been working with Navajo clients and suing car dealers for 18 years.
"Many Navajos speak English as a second language, if they speak English at all," Fabian said. "And the laws in Arizona and New Mexico really hold you to what’s in the contract. And a lot of Navajos just don’t have the ability to understand it. Many beleganas don’t understand what’s in the contracts." (A belegana is a Navajo term for silly white person.)
The Navajo Nation is so vast and remote, people have to have cars. Fabian said car dealers know this and know Navajo car buyers must travel great distances to the dealership and don’t want to leave the lot without a new car.
Fabian spoke to the group gathered. She listed car dealers’ tricks and tried to demystify the sales contract.
"They’ll charge you for theft guard, etch theft, paint warranties," Fabian said. "All of these things these are all the ways they make money, and none of those things you need. None of them."
Arizona is a so-called “buyer beware state” -- laws here protecting consumers are weak, according to the National Consumer Law Center. The same is true in many states including Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. California’s laws are stronger.
Still, the National Automobile Dealers Association has a code of ethics. The association refused to be interviewed for this story but did provide a statement that said: “we do not believe there is any place for behavior that is unlawful and unfair to consumers.”
And much of this deceptive behavior may actually not be unlawful -- as long as it’s all written down in a contract. Many Navajos, who come from an oral tradition, place more value on spoken words than the written contract.
"A lot of Navajos will trust what the other person is going to say," said Levon Henry, the former attorney general of the Navajo Nation.
Henry said a handshake means something to Navajos.
"They don’t want to believe another person is going to lie to them," Henry said.
Leonard Gorman is the Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. He called the mistreatment of Navajos appalling.
"If the human rights standard is that you freely understand, you freely consent to an arrangement and you make that decision with the best information that you can digest," Gorman said. "If that is the standard, we hear that there are multiple, multiple times that that’s being violated."
The Commission will hold more hearings and plans to investigate any formal complaints filed.