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THE FINE PRINT

Online car dealer Carvana admits mistakes, repays Maine woman, and apologizes

Lauryn Smith stood in a Westbrook, Maine, impound lot near a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan, which she bought online from Caravana.Photo by Carl D. Walsh for Boston Globe

Carvana, the giant online retailer of used cars, this week apologized to Lauryn Smith for the month-long ordeal it put her through after the car she bought from them broke down.

And she actually ended up making a little extra money on the deal, though it was hardly worth all the trouble.

Along with the apology, Carvana sent Smith a $2,000 check, which included $1,700 as reimbursement for the towing and storing charges she paid out of pocket, and $300 for the “headaches” it caused her.

The apology and check came days after Smith’s plight was featured last week in a Fine Print column in the Globe that was critical of Carvana.

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In her early dealings with Carvana, Smith talked on the phone a half dozen times with customer service representatives, during which she was repeatedly assured the company would take care of everything after the car broke down.

But Carvana, one of the country’s leading online-only retailers of used cars, did not follow through with its promises to have the car towed from the spot where Smith was told to leave it.

And after it was finally towed and racked up expensive storage charges, the company insisted Smith pay hundreds of dollars in fees. Smith refused, saying the charges were due to Carvana’s mistakes.

A Carvana manager then let it be known that Smith’s credit could be “severely” damaged if she didn’t agree to pay the charges, which Smith said felt like bullying.

Smith challenged the company to listen to the recorded phone calls between Smith and Carvana representatives to verify that she was right.

But Carvana apparently didn’t do that initially, while continuing to insist Smith pay up. In the face of possibly ruined credit, Smith paid $1,700.

Carvana’s position, however, changed quickly after the Globe column. Almost 200 readers posted comments to the online version of the column, most of them critical of Carvana.

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“I’m happy Carvana has stepped up to take responsibility,” Smith said after accepting Carvana’s apology and check. “But the reason I shared this with the Globe wasn’t only about me. I worry that other people get treated badly all the time and I wanted to show them there’s a way to fight back.”

She said the Carvana manager who ultimately agreed to the apology listened to all the recordings and reviewed the five pages of detailed notes Smith had taken on all her interactions with Carvana.

As part of the settlement, Smith said Carvana agreed to a telephone conference with her to discuss improvements in customer service.

The saga began when Smith, 43, of Portland, Maine, ordered a VW Tiguan in July. Smith quickly discovered enough problems with the car to cancel the sale, which Carvana allows within seven days, no questions asked.

For several days, with Carvana’s permission, Smith drove the Tiguan. But then it died at a gas station while Smith was running errands.

A Carvana representative on the phone told Smith to leave the car where it was and the company would have it picked up. Smith confirmed the rep’s instructions before arranging a ride home.

But Carvana failed to pick up the car at the gas station, leading the station owner to have it towed away. By the time Carvana contacted Smith in early August, the bill for towing and storing the car had skyrocketed.

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

After the Globe column appeared, many readers sided with Smith.

“Based on this story, you’d be a fool to do business with this company going forward,” one reader wrote. “In other words, the story, I believe, will cost Carvana hell of a lot more money than it would have had they simply done the RIGHT thing.”

Before the column was published, the Globe repeatedly e-mailed and called Carvana for several days asking for its side of the story but did not get a response.

After publication, Carvana said it found the Globe’s e-mails, which were correctly addressed to the press office, in its spam folder.

In a statement sent this week, Carvana said, “We care deeply about the experiences of every one of our customers, and we worked closely with Ms. Smith to resolve this issue as we are committed to ensuring that in the rare cases where we don’t initially live up to our brand promise, we work to make it right.”

Smith is now arranging to lease a car from a local dealership.


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