Cash for clunkers will be funneled through dealers

Posted July 05, 2009, at 11:05 p.m.

The federal government’s Car Allowance Rebate System program, or CARS, had barely been announced when sites started popping up on the Internet by people hoping to cash in. Here are some tips on which sites you may want to visit and which ones you might as well skip.

Some of the sites, set up by auto manufacturers, aim to inform consumers on the ins and outs of the program. They may be of some help to consumers considering trading in “clunkers,” as our beloved yet less-efficient vehicles are becoming known.

Job One in the federal effort is getting these older, gas-hungry cars and trucks off the road. Trade in your older model for a new vehicle, get a rebate of up to $4,500, and get better mileage and generate less pollution for years to come.

A key part of the plan is crushing the traded-in vehicles; the Obama administration doesn’t want them back on the roads either in the U.S. or elsewhere. So it’s unlikely that any dealer will give you more than the salvage value on your oldie.

The CARS program is somewhat complex, and not all of the rules have been made final. The official Web site, www.cars.gov, is run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The site promises it will have most details by July 23. Most auto dealers — the sales points through which the rebates will flow — are waiting patiently for the program to be fully implemented.

Not Hyundai. That carmaker has begun fronting money to its dealers early, hoping to cash in on whatever “rebate fever” has been generated by the months of talk about Cash for Clunkers. As of this writing, Hyundai was alone in making such offers; watch for others to follow in coming days.

Also, watch out for ads offering to “help prepare” for the rebate program. Hucksters may try to get your name, Social Security number or other personal information under the pretense of “registering for the program” or putting you in touch with authorized dealers near you. A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says consumers don’t need to register, and the authorization process hasn’t been worked out yet.

For now, here are the main points:

? Rebates may be either $3,500 or $4,500, depending on the type of vehicle.

? The trade-in vehicle must have been registered to and insured by the same person for the previous 12 months.

? The trade-in must be less than 25 years old and (generally) must get 18 miles per gallon or less.

? The rebates apply only to purchase or lease of new vehicles (if a lease makes more sense for you, know that the minimum lease period is five years).

New car dealers are the key players in the program. It will be up to them to verify the eligibility of both new and trade-in vehicles, that the trade-in is drivable, and that registration and insurance have been continuous for 12 months. Rebates will be transferred electronically to the dealers, who will pass them on to consumers. To keep the same person from getting multiple rebates, information on your driver’s license may be recorded.

The details could change as rules shape up, so check the CARS Web site for updates. You may also call 866-CAR-7891 or TTY at 800-424-9153 for further information or to report suspected fraud. Get help figuring your current mileage by visiting www.fueleconomy.gov.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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