Used car fraud high in US
A nationwide crackdown on auto dealers has turned up widespread evidence of false ads, deceptive loans, and fake odometer readings, the US Government said Thursday.
The investigation, led by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and law enforcement, resulted in 252 enforcement actions and US$2.6 million in consumer refunds and fees.
It was the second time that the FTC has gone after the car industry. Last year, the agency announced 10 cases of deceptive advertising and loans. Officials say the more recent investigation in the US and Canada involved the Justice Department and state prosecutors.
"The clear message is that across this country, and indeed internationally, law enforcement agencies are on the lookout for deceptive and illegal practices by auto dealers and will take whatever action is necessary to protect consumers," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In one case, a company called the National Payment Network (NPN) Inc in San Mateo, California, set up car buyers with an automated payment programme that was pitched as a way to save money. However, regulators said the fees associated with the programme were so heavy they cancelled out any savings. For example, a standard five-year auto loan would charge US$775 in fees.
Matt Blatt dealerships, which have multiple locations in New Jersey, worked with National Payment Network to sell loans and received commission for the more than 1,000 consumers they enrolled, according to the FTC.
As part of a settlement, National Payment Network will refund US$1.5 million to consumers and waive US$949,000 in fees to current customers. Matt Blatt Inc. and Glassboro Imports LLC will pay US$184,000.
On Thursday, both companies denied any wrongdoing. Matt Blatt Inc believed it had clearly explained the terms and benefits of the payment programme in question but agreed to settle with the FTC to avoid "protracted and expensive litigation", according to a company statement released on Thursday.
Likewise, National Payment Network said it "strongly disagrees" with the FTC and presented "considerable evidence, including consumer satisfaction surveys, training materials for dealership personnel, and other documents that support its position and demonstrate the value" of the payment programmes in question.
"NPN has decided, however, that a settlement is in the best interest of its customers and auto dealer channel partners," the company wrote in an e-mailed statement.
The FTC also accused three auto dealers of false advertising and violating truthful lending laws. Those affected are Cory Fairbanks Mazda of Longwood, Florida; Jim Burke Nissan of Birmingham, Alabama; and Ross Nissan of El Monte, California. They have agreed to settle charges that they advertised sales, as well as lease or finance options, without disclosing relevant terms such as required down payments.
In the end, the FTC said any value of the offer was cancelled out by "fine-print disclaimers".
Telephone calls to each of the three dealerships were not immediately returned Thursday.
Several other cases handled by the Justice Department involved odometer fraud and inflating a car buyer's income in order to qualify them for a loan. Other cases pursued by state attorneys-general found that some car dealerships failed to disclose mechanical defects and charged customers supplemental warranties without their consent.