CHICAGO (WLS) -- Your car can be repossessed after buying it without a title, a situation that's more common than you may think and can happen even when buying a car at a licensed dealership.
"I put $1,500 down, he gave me a receipt, I went back the next day with $500," Tonika Brown told the ABC 7 I-Team.
She made the down payment on a used Nissan to auto dealer John Willis of JLW Automotive, doing business as Automonsta, in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood.
But a few months later her temporary plate expired. Then she was contacted by her auto finance company.
"They sent me a letter saying they had to back out of the deal with the dealership because they couldn't obtain a title to that vehicle," Brown explained.
With no title, Brown returned the car to the dealer.
"He gave me this Windstar van and I asked him, 'I said what am I supposed to do with this?'" she said. "'Just drive it around for a little bit. You're going to drive it around until I get you financed. I'm working it out, trust me. It will all work out.'"
I-Team Takeaway: Tips to avoid title troubles
Brown said that van broke down, though Willis claims she damaged it. Brown said when Willis wouldn't reimburse her original down payment for the Nissan, she sued him, winning on default. Brown said she hasn't seen any of the $17,000 judgement.
Automonsta has since closed and Willis refused to talk on camera. In an email, he claimed "Ms. Brown car was repossessed for lack of payment and failure to provide full coverage insurance on the vehicle..."
But Brown provided the I-Team with the letter from the finance company saying there was "a potential issue" with her title and that they refunded her payments.
"I was extremely excited to buy a car," Bennie Payne said.
Payne put $2,500 down on a Toyota Avalon from John Willis at Automonsta.
"Things start to get suspicious when my temporary plate expired," Payne said.
He also received a letter from his finance company saying there was "a potential issue" with his title. They returned all of his car payments. Bennie said Willis took the car back but never returned his down payment of $2,500.
"I work every day, I am not a rich guy. $2,500 is definitely a lot of money," said Payne.
The Illinois Secretary of State confirmed that Payne's title was never issued. Willis told the I-Team that he's unfamiliar with Payne even though they supplied him with proof of purchase and the finance company's letter about the missing title.
Payne also complained to the Better Business Bureau.
"The pattern of complaints we have received is consistent," said Steve Bernas, Illinois Better Business Bureau. "They purchased a vehicle from them and subsequently had problems after because there was no title available."
The Secretary of State's office said that from 2014 to 2018 Automonsta accumulated 13 failure to transfer title violations with the state. They said that number is not high when compared to other dealers and it never accumulated the five in one year required to launch an investigation.
Willis told the I-Team that his dealership had "well over 2,000 satisfied customers" and "hundreds of referrals" while it was open, and "less than 15 negative reviews" in five years. But he also apologized for any customer "that we failed," saying one unhappy customer is one too many.
The I-Team asked the Illinois Secretary of State how consumers can avoid these title transfer problems.
"Verify they have the title for the vehicle," advised Lt. Elmer Garza. "If you run a Carfax or auto check, it will show you the last title that was issued for that vehicle and it will give the title number. Compare that to the dealership title to make sure that dealership has the right title in hand. And match the VIN number on the title to the VIN number on the vehicle."
You should report any problems with a title or a license plate to the Illinois Secretary of State police immediately, but make sure you have the bill of sale or they won't be able to help.
The Secretary of State's Office said they were unable to do anything about the two consumers in this story because they didn't report complaints within the 18-month statute of limitations.
You can also report issues to the Illinois Attorney General.