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Buying a car? Better watch out for your asterisk

Sharpen your pencils, Funny Money fans: It's time for a pop math quiz! Find the incorrect equation:

$20,995 = $15,995

$0.00 = $2,399

$25,000 = $0.00

If your answer is that all of those are wrong, wrong, wrong, you are much better at math than several auto dealers fined by the Federal Trade Commission last week for deceptive advertising. The FTC looked at auto ads and found that, when it came to the fine print, consumers -- and the whole concept of "math" in general -- got pretty rough treatment.

Naturally, asterisks were involved, which proves my suspicion that asterisks are the English language's most untrustworthy pieces of punctuation. Have you ever seen an asterisk that indicated there was some valuable benefit? Such as, "*Dealer will also shovel your driveway, spring for a three-martini lunch and potty-train your toddler."

When punctuation strikes

No, these asterisks ran true to their sneaky, sleazy form. In the first example, a pickup was priced at $15,995, but the tiny type noted that was only after an assumed $5,000 down payment on your part -- which naturally, you assume, too, because you always carry a spare five grand tucked in your snood, right?

In the second, a Honda dealer advertised $0 due at signing, but only if you brought $2,399 to the signing. (As what -- a hostess gift?) Then there was the $25,000 worth of gas one dealer said you won in its scratch-off sweepstakes, except that none of the prizes were ever awarded. The only real prize was your very own no-expenses paid trip to the dealership.

The lesson here is to look at all aspects of any offer to buy or lease a car, crunch all the numbers, comparison shop and then figure out what deal makes the most sense for you.

"Be sure you're seeing the whole picture," cautions Mark Glassman, a staff attorney in the FTC's bureau of consumer protection. "You can see offers that look vastly different, but if you look at the small print, the attractive ones are not always that attractive."

Test drive your calculator first

With car sales heating up, dealers are naturally getting very competitive and, while the majority of them are above-board, some clearly take things too far. That's why you need to do your homework. Research the price at your library, through Consumer Reports or one of the many online sites. Get pre-approved for financing at your bank or, even better, credit union. And find out what your trade-in will be worth before you step onto any dealer's lot.

Then go car shopping and you can score a great deal -- I guarantee it!*

*Guarantee valid only with the purchase of two or more cases of "The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese," Brian J. O'Connor's humorous guide to budget-cutting. Available at fine booksellers now and at

(Brian J. O'Connor is an award-winning columnist for The Detroit News. Contact him at or visit


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