The Key Mailer Car Dealer Advertising Scam

The key mailer car dealer scam is an effective way to drive traffic to a car dealership.

This “Key Mailer Scam” comes in many forms, also known as the Scratch Off Scam, Car Dealerships Direct Mail Scam, and many others.

These direct mail scams aim to get a high volume of potential car buyers to the dealership. Once at the dealership, the salespeople’s job is to switch consumers from collecting their free prize to buying a new or used car.

What is a Key Mailer Scam?

A car dealership will pay a third party to send out a mass direct mail campaign promoting a “big sale” to the local public to drive traffic to the dealership.

These mailers may contain door prizes, credit cards, gifts for taking a test drive, cash, number matching cards, and even car keys.

Car dealers spend thousands of dollars with a direct mail company to produce bright, colorful mailers that blanket local neighborhoods. Key mailers usually come to your residence looking like an official piece of mail; this is, of course, to get you to open it.

The actual mail piece is colorful and may contain some items to get you to visit the dealership to see if you’re a winner.

Salespeople are highly trained on how to handle customers coming in from receiving a mailer and are preloaded with specific questions and statements in an attempt to help sell a car.

There are many other types of direct mail offers dealers send out to the local community. “Scratch Off” mailers and “Automatic Winners” are becoming very popular along with the original key mailers.

The goal is, all the same, to get as many people to the dealership as possible and try to get them to buy a car before they educate themselves on how to buy one properly.

What Does a Key Mailer Look Like?

Here is an example of a very official-looking key mailer envelope:

What a key mailer from a car dealership looks like.

Official key mailer envelope.

Some of these mailers will include a key, credit card, or some other item to create excitement. They may also have a five to ten-digit code printed on the mail. If your number matches the number they have posted at the dealership, you could win a significant prize, usually a new car.

Your chances of winning a car if your number matches the dealer’s number are approximately 1:120,000. If the car dealer who sent you the mailer only distributed 5,000 mailers in your community, the winning number may not be in that batch.

It must be mailed to someone as required by law, but it may have been with another group in a different location or even another state. A dealer will always buy insurance if someone brings in the winning number.

Example of an actual key inside a car dealership key mailer:

Car dealership key mailer with an actual key attached.

Key mailer with a real key.

This kind of direct mail advertising stimulates people who may have been thinking about buying a car but are just waiting for the right opportunity.

Some direct mail companies will tailor a key mailer to things that may have happened in the local area, like a recent hail storm, model year close-outs, customer rebates, or special finance programs.

Find and Read the Disclaimer Carefully

The wording on key mailers is very suggestive. The asterisk after the above statement tells you to find the small print and read what it says. It’s located at the bottom of the mailer above, below is what it says.

*Please see the invitation for complete and official rules and regulations.

The disclaimer on this type of mailer is enormous. If you see an offer on the mailer that looks interesting to you, look for a symbol beside the offer. Find the character in the small print of the disclaimer; the offer’s details should follow the character.

Here is a picture of what one of these disclaimers looks like from an actual key mailer:

Disclaimer from a car dealership's key mailer advertisement.

Key mailer disclaimer.

Other Offers You May Find on a Key Mailer Scam

Dealers can be creative; you may find other offers inside your direct mail package and a key.

Other offers you might find included in a key mailer:

  • Your trade-in is more than it’s worth; over-the-market trade incentives are available for high-demand vehicles.
  • Two hundred cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs are available to the direct public – Every vehicle on the lot will be sold regardless of loss or profit.
  • Your trade is worth a minimum of $1,500 during this sale.
  • You are saving up to 60% off MSRP.
  • Every attendee receives a scratch-off for a chance to win $25,000.
  • Test drive a car, and we will buy dinner for two.
  • Due to the recent hail storm (or other weather-related events), our new cars are cheaper than ever.
  • Factory incentives and customer rebates are more significant than they have been in 20 years.
  • You have won one of these prizes, a new car in the showroom, a 52″ LCD TV, an Apple iPad, a T-Bone steak certificate, $5, etc.
  • $1 down and drive away in a new car.
  • Vehicles will be sold at unbelievable prices, such as $299.00.
  • Additional coupons for $500-$2,500 off the price of a new or used car.

Here’s an example of a free prize offer from a key mailer:

Example of a dealership key mailer prize section.

Additional key mailer prizes.

Usually, key mailers will have some door prizes just for coming into the dealership. Many people come to the dealership to see if their number matches and collect the door prize.

There is nothing wrong with getting your free prize, but you should check to ensure there are no other stipulations before collecting your gift. Some mailers will write the disclaimer to collect your prize; you must register online, fill out a credit application, or test drive a car.

More car dealer direct mail scam tips:

  • Car dealers use key mailers to get your excitement level up and play on your emotions.
  • This is not the way to buy a car. Do not fall for the hype; never buy a car on impulse.
  • Dealerships are still using direct mail as an effective marketing technique.
  • There are several different “free prize” mailers. They come in all shapes and sizes; however, they all work the same way.

How to Avoid the Key Mailer Car Dealer Scam

  • The best way to avoid this scam is to toss the mailer in the recycle bin when it arrives at your residence.
  • A dealer wants you to walk into a dealership unprepared and uneducated. This gives them the best chance of taking advantage of you.
  • If you want to buy a new car, make sure you do your research first. Competitive pricing always gets you the best deal. Read our section on how to get free no-obligation price quotes sent to your inbox by making car dealers compete online.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Read and understand the disclaimer and fine print on the mailer to understand what the mailer is offering you.
  • It is ok to go to the dealership and collect your free prize. Just be ready to be bombarded with salespeople trying to sell you a car. Whatever you do, don’t buy one until you’ve done your homework on the entire new car buying process.

About the author
Carlton Wolf is the author and founder of Auto Cheat Sheet.My name is Carlton Wolf, and I’ve been in the car business since 1994, both retail and wholesale. I created the Auto Cheat Sheet to better educate buyers about the deceptive sales practices many dealerships use nationwide. Please understand that not all car dealers are dishonest. However, you never know who you’ll be dealing with, though. I’m willing to share my knowledge and experience with anyone who listens. Keep in mind that I’m a car guy, not a writer.

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