A car dealership in Sherbrooke, Que., may have broken the law when it used a GPS device to disable the car of a client who was refusing to pay an extra $200 fee, say consumer advocates consulted by CBC News.
Bury, Que., resident Daniel Lallier signed a four-year lease for a Kia Forte LX back in May from Kia Sherbrooke. Two months later, the 20-year-old's grandmother offered to buy the car outright when he lost his job and couldn't make his weekly payments.
After settling the balance and paying a $300 penalty, Lallier said, the dealership told him he would have to pay an additional $200 to remove a GPS tracker that had been installed on the car.
The device allows dealers to remotely immobilize a car in case lease payments are in arrears.
Lallier said there was no mention of the removal fee in the contract and he disputed having to pay it.
"I just find it absurd that over $13,000 was spent on this vehicle and we still have to pay $200 more to have their device removed," he told CBC.
Notified by text message
After Lallier refused to pay the fee, a mechanic notified him by text message that his car was being remotely disabled until the dealership recovered the device and $200 fee.
"I went outside and tested my car, and it wouldn't work at all. It wouldn't start period, and I got angry," Lallier said.
He said the text message was the only notice he received from the dealership that his car would be deactivated.
Lallier had just started a new job and needed the car to get to work.
"I let my mom deal with it because I would have blown a head gasket."
His mother was able to reach an agreement with the dealership. Lallier said a salesperson reactivated the car with his smartphone.
On Monday, the dealership contacted Lallier and removed the device without charge. CBC's calls to the dealer were not returned.
Disabling car you no longer own 'clearly illegal'
Quebec's Consumer Protection Bureau said it is illegal to charge fees not included in a signed contract.
The office also said a lender has to furnish a borrower with notice of 30 days before acting in such a way. Immobilizing a car could amount to a form of intimidation, which is also prohibited under consumer protection laws, they said.
George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association, said Quebec has strict rules on how GPS immobilizers can be used.
In this case, he said, the dealership's actions were against the law because it no longer owned the car.
"To turn off somebody's vehicle after he had already paid off the loan is clearly illegal … it's not your car anymore," Iny said.
He said GPS immobilizers only benefit lenders and making consumers pay fees for their installation, maintenance and removal is unfair.
Iny said Lallier's case is a good example of the conditions faced by borrowers with bad credit.
"Immobilizers are most often seen in cases of sub-prime borrowers with questionable credit," he said. "The devices are very effective at keeping people on time with their payments."
Bad credit, needed car
Lallier admitted to having bad credit and said he was just happy to get approved for the lease.
As a result, he didn't ask too many questions about the contract or the GPS tracker.
"I knew I had to deal with whatever I could get," he said.
Residents of Bury, a small, rural town about 45 kilometres from Sherbrooke, need a car for their daily activities, Lallier said.
"It's very frustrating — anything that happens to my car, it's my lifeline. If I don't have a car, I can't go out with friends, I can't go anywhere, essentially."
"We only got one depanneur here and that's it… If I don't have my car, I'd be screwed."