Taking Action: A car deal, a missing title and a plea for help

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A first-time car buying experience is one a young Huntsville woman will never forget. Months after she got a loan to purchase the car, she discovered a problem with the title.

The search for answers and the title prompted her to contact us. WHNT News 19's Al Whitaker said this turned out to be one of the most convoluted issues he's ever tackled.

Our investigation has revealed a problem not only for car buyers but the lenders who finance them. WHNT News 19 took action to get to the bottom of this mess and uncovered something anyone who buys a used car needs to know.

Breunna Jones is a 23-year-old college senior, and this car was the very first major purchase she made on her own.

"I priced the car, I test drove it, I wasn't sure exactly if I wanted it or not because it's not what I wanted, I wanted something else, but it was still a nice car," said Jones.

So she agreed to buy it and made arrangements with the seller to meet at Redstone Federal Credit Union to sign the paperwork.

That was in December 2014. In February, Redstone called her and said they never got the title. Now it’s November, nearly a year later, and she still doesn’t have it.”

"I have sent emails, I have sent text messages, I have sent certified letters in the mail and he's blaming it all on the Alabama Department of Revenue," Jones said.

The Alabama Department of Revenue is the agency that issues and transfers car titles. It is also the agency that issues licenses to car dealers, like Walter Alexander, the guy who sold Breunna her car.

"The title itself has been sent from the state twice. It's at the Wynn Drive home office, which is on Wynn Drive, at the Redstone is what I'm saying, is on Wynn Drive. I know for a fact the lady at the state has sent it twice," said Alexander.

WHNT News 19 went to the Department of Revenue in Montgomery to personally check on the title, and no, it was never sent out. In fact, we found evidence that the application for the title had been canceled the same day Alexander signed the paperwork.

Jay Starling is the Associate Director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Alabama Department of Revenue. He says his office processes more than 5,000 titles a day.

"If you purchase a vehicle from a dealer and they don't present you the title and you can't get the title from the dealer for whatever the reason, then the only thing you can do is apply for a title bond," said Starling.

That's otherwise known as a surety bond. Breunna's first application was turned down but after we got involved, her application was approved.

During the course of our investigation, we learned this was not an isolated incident. Hundreds of of car buyers in Alabama face this same issue every year.

"Consumers should do as much homework as they can on who they're going to do business with -- as much as they do when it comes to researching that car," said Fred Trusty of Redstone Federal Credit Union.

One of the most common problems is getting a title for a car that was bought in one state and then sold in another. It can take weeks to find out if there's a lien on the car in the state where it's from.

That's about to change. Next year, the state plans to introduce a new feature on its website that will make it possible to find out in a matter of moments if the used car you're about to buy is still financed or has a lien against it in another state. That should close the door on a lot of the fraud that's taking place.

As for Breunna's car, we don't know why the title for that car wasn't available. We never did get a straight answer from the guy who sold it to her.

But we did find out his car dealers license in Alabama was revoked back in May because of title issues on more than one car he sold.

So how do you protect yourself when buying a used car?

If you're about to invest several thousand dollars on a used car, consider spending another $40 on a Carfax report. It won't tell you everything, but it just might save you a lot of time, trouble and money. Click here to find out more about Carfax.