Some car ads have become so brazenly deceptive that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently brought charges of deceptive advertising against 10 major dealers in an investigation dubbed “Operation Steer Clear.” The FTC received a large number of complaints—about 75,000—about car dealerships in 2012. Examples of deceptive ads in the FTC crackdown…

The vehicle is advertised at an enticing but misleading price. What’s missing: In one case, a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe advertised for $17,995 excluded the $5,000 required down payment. In another case, a Honda dealer advertised that consumers would pay $0 up-front to lease a vehicle when, in fact, there were substantial fees due at signing. Other variations include advertised discounts that are available only if you buy an expensive, fully loaded model.

You save thousands of dollars in cash-back rebates when you buy the car. What’s missing: Almost no one qualifies for all of the available rebates, so the vast majority of buyers would end up paying far more than the advertised price. Requirements to get rebates can include being a recent college graduate, being on active military duty, currently owning a car that is the same make as the advertised one and currently owning a car that is a competing make of the advertised one.

You won a car-dealership sweepstakes and need to show up in person to collect your award. These notices typically are mailed to you at home. What’s missing: It often turns out that the “prize” is just an opportunity to be entered into a “finalists” sweepstakes round.

Self-defense: Always contact a manager at the dealership by phone or e-mail to confirm the complete price and terms in a car ad so that you don’t make a needless visit (e-mail is best, since it creates a written record of what you are told). The whole point of deceptive ads is to get you into the dealership where a salesperson can have more influence on your car shopping.

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