Action 9

Used car dealer accused of mislabeling models to look higher end

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Customers and even a former employee said Auto House mislabeled cars to make certain vehicles look like higher-end, more expensive models.

Action 9 investigator Jason Stoogenke spent five months looking into the business.  And, now, North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles investigators said they are opening an investigation into Auto House based on what Stoogenke found.

Auto House has two lots: one in Mooresville and one in Salisbury. Several people Stoogenke spoke with believe Auto House took used Nissan Altima S models -- which are more basic models -- and put on SL emblems instead. SLs are top of the line Altimas. That one letter means a big price difference.

Eddie Lowery went to the lot in Mooresville and bought a 2015 Nissan Altima. He said the letters SL were on the trunk. "[I] went to trade it in on another car at a used dealership and they told me that it was an S model with an L sticker on the back," he said. Stoogenke ran the VIN and, yes, it's an S, not an SL. The difference in blue book value is about $5,000.

Click play: More from Eddie Lowery

"Auto House got one over on me," he said.

SLs have more bells and whistles than Ss, like 2015s for example, which have heated steering wheels and seats, fog lights, mirror turn signals, leather seats, LED tail lights, and automatic windows. Once the car comes off Nissan's line, if it's an S, it stays an S. Even if a dealer makes improvements to the vehicle, it's not allowed to change the model. It's still an S.

Philip Helms also bought a used 2015 Altima from Auto House in Mooresville. It's also an S, but said SL, also with a blue book value difference of roughly $5,000.

Read Action 9's follow-up coverage on this investigation:

When Stoogenke asked him if he thought Auto House took a Nissan Altima S and put an L on it, Helms said, "I don't know if they did, but that's what happened, pretty much. Someone put it on there."

When Action 9 producers went to Auto House in person, they found two Altimas on the lot in Salisbury. Both VINs linked to S models, but the window stickers of both cars said SL. And, on the back of one of the cars, you can see where there used to be an L.

Oscar Emmary use to work as a salesman at Auto House for a few months earlier this year. He told Stoogenke he suspected the dealership was adding SL emblems to Altimas and that his co-worker confirmed it and even showed him a box of SL emblems for relabeling the cars. "I've never seen a single actual SL on that lot. That's just me," he said.

Click play: More from Oscar Emmary

Emmary said his boss warned him to stop asking about the Altimas, and then "the next day was my day off and, the following day, I was fired."

Action 9 had been keeping an eye on Auto House's website. Within hours of Action 9 started asking questions, someone started changing the vehicle descriptions on the site. At least one Altima, which had been labeled an SL, became correctly labeled an S.

Action 9 asked Auto House's owner for an on-camera interview. He emailed instead, saying a "part-time employee in Salisbury" printed the window stickers wrong. He didn't address questions about SL emblems appearing on the back of cars or the website changing after Action 9 first contacted the business. Mooresville's manager blamed software, printer and web issues. They both offered to resolve complaints.

Lowery and Helms said they did complain to Auto House, but that the business wouldn't resolve the issue. "I mean, we like the car, but we don't like the price," Helms said about he and his wife. Lowery said he felt the same way. They want either the price difference back or real SLs.

And there's a possible safety issue here, too. If you don't know what vehicle you have, you don't know what recalls apply, so always check the VIN before you buy.

Click play: Jason Stoogenke's how to

If you would like to contact NCDMV investigators, click here to send them an email.