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THE FINE PRINT

An online car sale gone wrong ends in hefty charges. Who should pay?

Lauryn Smith in a Westbrook, Maine impound lot near the 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan she bought online from Carvana. Smith experienced mechanical problems upon receiving the car, and after it broke down, she faced a confrontation with Carvana over the towing and storage of the vehicle.Photo by Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe

At first, the people at Carvana, the giant online retailer of used cars, were so nice, so “empathetic,” said Lauryn Smith.

In a half-dozen calls with Carvana when problems quickly developed with her car, “everybody was like, ‘Oh, I’m here for you,’” Smith recalled.

But the conversations took on a very different tone after a dispute arose over who was responsible for hundreds of dollars in towing and storage charges when the car broke down.

It became so harsh that Smith said she felt not only betrayed, but scared.

“She was forcefully talking over me,” Smith said of the Carvana representative who demanded she pay most of the cost of the tow and storage. “She didn’t want to hear anything I had to say.”

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The Carvana representative also let it be known that Smith’s credit could be damaged if she didn’t agree to pay the charges, which Smith said felt like bullying.

The problems started within days of the VW Tiguan being delivered to her home in Portland, Maine in early July. Carvana is one of the country’s leading online-only retailers of used cars, which it offers at no-haggle prices. Buyers can do the whole deal online.

Days after delivery, Smith took the car to a mechanic, who discovered an oil leak in the engine, she said. The mechanic said it was safe for her to drive, but eventually she should have it fixed, she said.

Later on the same day, the engine light came on, indicating a different problem, one having to do with the tire alignment, she said.

That was enough for Smith, who is 43 and works in tech. She figured the Tiguan was a lemon and canceled the sale, which Carvana allows within seven days of delivery, no questions asked.

On its website, Carvana touts a “150-point inspection” it performs on every car it lists for sale. “Whoever inspected my car apparently missed a few things,” Smith said. “It spooked me.”

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As a replacement, Smith picked a VW Golf. But Carvana said it would take three weeks for delivery. While she waited, Carvana said Smith was welcome to drive the Tiguan, she said.

But the Tiguan conked out while Smith was stopped at a gas station a few days later. Smith said “Amanda,” a Carvana customer service representative she reached by phone, told her to leave the Tiguan right where it was. Carvana would have it picked up.

The 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan, which Lauryn Smith bought online from Caravana, has been in a Westbrook, Maine impound lot since July 20.Photo by Carl D. Walsh for The Boston Globe

But before hanging up, Smith wanted assurances, she said. In response, she said Amanda said words to the effect of, “I am confirming that you can leave the car at the gas station and we will take care of it.”

Smith arranged for a ride home from the gas station and thought she was done with it.

But three days later, Amanda called Smith, wanting to know if Smith would agree to pay to tow the car from the gas station and later get reimbursed by the company. Smith said she was stunned by the call because she assumed the Tiguan had been towed days earlier.

Smith said she told Amanda she wasn’t confident the car was still there. Amanda said she would check with the gas station and let Smith know if there were any problems. Amanda never called again, Smith said, and once again she thought she was done with it.

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On Aug. 4, the VW Golf arrived, as scheduled, but the delivery driver refused to release it unless he got the Tiguan in exchange. Smith said she had no idea where the Tiguan was.

Smith called Carvana, and eventually a representative said the Tiguan had been tracked down, but the cost of towing and storing it since July was $990, and Carvana wanted her to split the cost with the company, $495 each.

Smith refused, saying Amanda had taken responsibility for the car, and that Carvana had only itself to blame for expensive storage charges. She said she spent hours on the phone with Carvana. Most of the customer service representatives she talked with said they agreed she was in the right, but there was little follow-up from Carvana.

Smith said things turned ugly on Aug. 7, when a Carvana representative called to say Carvana would pay no more than $500 toward the charges. (By then, the storage tab was more than $1,200 and climbing.)

The Carvana representative said if Smith didn’t agree to pay, she risked having the car repossessed and her credit “severely impacted,” Smith said.

The representative told Smith she was the legal owner of the car by virtue of having signed a three-page retail purchase agreement, Smith said.

Smith continued to refuse to pay.

But a few days later, saying she felt overmatched by a major corporation, Smith relented and paid the tow company $1,500. She’d had too many sleepless nights.

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None of this was her fault, she said. If Carvana had told her she was responsible for the tow from the beginning, she would have taken care of it. But she said Amanda assured her otherwise. And she trusted her and the company she represented.

I wrote a detailed e-mail to Carvana, recounting what Smith told me. I said Carvana was apparently in a position to check the veracity of Smith’s account by checking its own records (calls are recorded).

Carvana did not respond to my repeated attempts to reach it by e-mail and phone.

Without hearing Carvana’s side of the story, it seems to me that this situation was badly mishandled. If Smith is correct in her assertions — which it would seem Carvana could easily verify by checking its own records — it needs to do the right thing and reimburse Smith and apologize.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.