Author Archives | Terry O'Loughlin

Regulators Will Strike Back!

Regulators Will Strike Back!

At the Consumer Bankers Association (CBA) Conference earlier this year, an informal poll was taken from the several hundred bankers in the audience as to the major concerns they had for their industry. For the past six years, compliance was substantially the greatest concern and ranked first. However, in the 2017 poll, compliance declined to the fifth tier of concern with the change in the regulatory climate. The Trump administration and a Republican House and Senate have clearly posited that regulation should be reduced and markets should be allowed to work. Passage of the Choice Act in the House is a good example of this deregulatory zeal.

But are the bankers correct? Should dealers celebrate a defanged CFPB and an announced deregulatory posture?

The answer is a muted one. If the CFPB is disciplined, and its authority is significantly lessened, franchise and independent dealers should take a modicum of solace in this outcome. Issues such as disparate impact, new ancillary product rules, and less supervision of financing sources will lessen regulatory burden for dealers.

However, due to political pressure from certain senators and congressmen, as well as numerous consumer advocacy groups, the federal agencies, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Federal Reserve Bank (FRB), National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), will be emboldened to continue certain CFPB policies and add to them. These agencies have a mandate which they can’t ignore and possess powers which they seldom exercise. They also collect consumer complaints.

A sinister emerging issue which could force these agencies to act would be the apparent growing bubble regarding vehicle financing fraud which parallels the housing bubble.

Point Predictive, analysts of risk management in the financial sector, has concluded that as many as 1% of vehicle credit applications include some type of material misrepresentation which is similar to the percentage in the housing bubble around 2009. The losses which financing sources experience from deception may double this year to $6 billion which is twice what it was in 2015. Remarkably, only 3% of dealers can be responsible for all of a financing source’s fraudulent applications.

As would be anticipated by anyone who has observed miscreant dealer behavior, the common types of credit application fraud include misrepresenting years employed and income, creating false paystubs, indicating nonexistent vehicle options (powerbooking) and overstating the value of the vehicle. Deception of this nature can be attributed to the consumer or dealer or both.

If such an economic systemic problem emerges, agencies would have no choice but to prosecute and add regulatory burdens to financing sources and dealers, which has already been somewhat exhibited.

In addition, there is growing interest by both federal and state regulators in alleging deception against creditors for extending credit to consumers who are not truly credit worthy and who will default on their retail installment sale contracts or lease contracts early in the contractual term. Dealers need to be reminded that they are considered creditors under the law. This problem is further addressed below.


DAGA stands for the Democratic Attorney General Association and its statements on its website are strident and defiant in reaction to the Trump administration:

“Our Democratic Attorneys General provide crucial checks and balances on a new federal administration that often refuses to follow the rule of law.”

“Democratic Attorneys General Are The First Line Of Defense Against The New Administration.”

Democratic attorneys general are planning to maintain many of the policies of the CFPB should it be reduced in power. For example, California is considering its own disparate impact enforcement.

Consider, as well, what actions DAGA members have taken against dealers in the past few years:

  • New York: Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has prosecuted and settled with dealers for over $15 million in the past three years and has convicted a dealer of felony charges regarding the burial of hazardous waste.
  • Massachusetts: The Massachusetts attorney general entered into a $13 million settlement regarding GAP.
  • Washington: The Washington AG sued and settled with a dealer for discriminating against Spanish speakers, misrepresenting finance terms, interest rates, title branding and warranties. The dealer had to pay $250,000 in its settlement and provide Spanish translated contracts in the future. Unusually, it was a civil rights case.
  • Delaware and Massachusetts: The attorneys general of these two states settled with a major financing source for $26 million regarding purchasing retail installment sale contracts from thousands of consumers who could not afford them.

The corresponding organization to DAGA is the Republican Attorneys General Association or RAGA. It is fair to report that the members of RAGA are generally supportive of the Trump administration. But all attorneys general must discharge their legal responsibilities and will be forced to respond to consumer complaints.

Attorney General Complaints

Many of the state attorneys general priorities are based upon consumer complaints. Dealers should remember that the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI) have tallied consumer complaints every year for the past 30 years. Consumer complaints regarding vehicle transactions have almost been the No. 1 complaint every year for the past three decades.

Various state statistics in 2016, regarding vehicle complaints filed with the state attorney general, support this conclusion of the CFA and NACPI:

  • Illinois: There were 2,783 complaints which made these complaints No. 1 collectively.
  • New Jersey: These complaints returned to No. 1 as the most common complaint.
  • Michigan: Vehicle complaints were No. 3.
  • New York: There were 3,437 complaints filed, which meant that they were No. 2 on the list.

New Risks to Dealers

Regulatory action could also be manifested in new ways:

  • Autonomous Vehicles and Franchise Dealers: Autonomous vehicles have been attracting a great deal of attention from companies not traditionally affiliated with the automobile industry: software companies. A number of these companies are attempting to fashion artificial intelligence, which will drive vehicles without the need of a human driver.

It is also rumored that these software companies are quietly lobbying Congress to enact legislation, which would allow them to bypass franchise law and sell these futuristic vehicles directly to the public. The FTC has already welcomed this idea. If Congress enacted such a law it would probably override state franchise law pursuant to the commerce clause of the Constitution.

  • An “All In” 36% APR: In November 2016, South Dakota voters approved a referendum which bars licensees from contracting for or receiving greater than a 36% maximum finance charge on financing. The finance charge calculation, as in the Military Lending Act APR calculation (MAPR), is an “all-in” calculation, and would include all interest, fees, and charges, including any ancillary products or services.

A violation of the 36% finance charge cap would be deemed void and uncollectable, and the financing source could face a misdemeanor charge, a serious consequence, indeed. Adding products such as GAP, service contracts, and other ancillary products very quickly would increase the interest rate beyond the 36% cap. What this means, quite simply, is that dealers will have less opportunity to sell ancillary products to their customers. Profit opportunities will be lost and consumers will have fewer options.

  • Creditor Liability in Underwriting: As the Delaware and Massachusetts case demonstrated above, regulators may be targeting creditors for not denying credit to those consumers who will, most likely, default on their retail installment sale contracts or lease contracts.

Dealers should recall, once again, that they are creditors by law and share in this potential liability. In other words, dealers and financing sources may be liable for advancing sales when the consumer’s ability to discharge their contractual obligations is limited. The law used for these prosecutions is the ubiquitous unfair and deceptive trade practices act (UDAP), which grants federal and state regulators great leeway and flexibility.

Remedies for Dealers

Compliance is here to stay. To paraphrase the ancient Roman, Vegetius, “In Times of Peace Prepare for War” — or as the Boy Scouts say “Be Prepared.” Dealers should remain diligent in protecting their interests.

If dealers don’t have a sound compliance program they should implement one. If they have a good program they should maintain it. Dealers need to continue to include compliance as simply part of their business regimen.

If dealers don’t have a sound compliance program the place to start is to appoint a Compliance Officer and grant him the appropriate authority. Dealers should be encouraged to craft a compliance management system.

Many of the new threats to dealers can be challenged by trade associations. The NADA, NIADA, and state ADAs all lobby lawmakers and agencies. Dealers should enthusiastically support these associations so that they can protect dealer interests. For example, the Choice Act is pending before the Senate and the passage of it would lesson regulatory burdens substantially. Dealers should support their dealer associations in this highly significant deregulatory bill.

Dealers should also police their own. If they are aware of another dealer’s fraudulent activities regarding credit applications they should report them to the AG’s office anonymously before the problem grows. This reporting should apply to other infractions as well. Honest dealers suffer unfairly when deceptive practices are employed since it gives advantages to disreputable dealers.

In my days of service at the Florida Attorney General’s Office, dealers often reported deceptive practices to me anonymously. It improved the business climate as action was taken against these dealers’ infractions. The vast majority of dealers operate honestly but a very small percentage tarnishes the industry’s reputation and invites regulation.

Finally, please note: The “general” part of the term “attorney general” is what is defined as a postpositive adjective. In other words, an attorney general is really a general attorney of the jurisdiction. Consequently, the plural of attorney general becomes attorneys general since the noun is the attorney part. It can be confusing.

Govern yourselves accordingly!

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Understanding Warranties

Understanding Warranties

An issue came across my desk recently concerning a featured disclosure which should always appear in buyer’s order, retail installment sale contracts and lease contracts. This disclosure is a disclaimer, a disclaimer of several types of warranties.

It also became apparent, in my further discussions with various people in the industry, that there is confusion about this topic. The confusion is understandable when one considers the various related warranty terms: express warranty, limited warranty, implied warranty, implied warranty of merchantability, implied warranty for fitness for a particular purpose, extended warranty, service contract, Lemon Law, and “as is.”

Federal and state law addresses these issues. Be wary, however, to always refer to your state law because there is variance among the states concerning these terms.

In most states, every dealer who sells or leases any type of vehicle should provide to the consumer, in a clear and conspicuous manner, language which clarifies that the only warranty being provided is the one supplied by the manufacturer unless the dealer provides a separate written warranty. Additional language should be added, which is allowed in most states, and this language should disclaim express warranties and the two implied warranties. It’s best if this disclosure appears on the front of the buyer’s order.

Let’s take a closer look at seven key terms P&A executives need to understand and relate accurately:

  1. Warranty

A warranty is simply a promise that a proposition of fact is true. This concept is further defined by federal and contract law. The party making the warranty is the warrantor or seller. The party who may avail himself of the warranty is the warrantee or buyer. An express warranty is one that is explicit and definite.

  1. Disclaimer

A disclaimer is a disavowal or renunciation. In this case, a dealer would seek to disavow responsibility regarding the liability associated with the parts and functioning of the vehicle being sold.

  1. Written Warranties

Manufacturers provide written warranties regarding the vehicles they produce. The federal law, the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (or “Mag-Moss”) governs written warranties. The written affirmation of the workmanship, quality or material of the vehicle meets the definition of warranty as identified in Mag-Moss.

The warranty is part of the overall exchange between the parties as would any of the tangible features of the vehicle, such as the engine or drivetrain. This point is significant as it relates to the illusory, fictional, and nonexistent “extended warranty” which should only be called by another name, such as “service contract.”

Pursuant to Mag-Moss, these warranties would have to be clearly indicated as full or limited. A full warranty completely covers the replacement or repair of any defect in the vehicle. A limited warranty is a reduced full warranty and addresses only particular parts and defects. A full warranty is relatively rare.

  1. UCC and Warranties

The state law, Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), addresses various business issues, including contractual relationships between two merchants (dealers in this case) or between a merchant and a consumer. A merchant is a business which routinely entertains transactions in that type of business. For example, if a furniture store sold a vehicle to a consumer that furniture store would not be a merchant, by definition, but a Ford store selling a vehicle would be characterized as a merchant.

The UCC created the two versions of implied warranties:

  • Implied Warranty of Merchantability: As a merchant, who is in the business of retailing vehicles, the dealer is representing, by implication, that the vehicle is generally equipped and suited for the purposes of a vehicle. It has an engine, brakes, transmission, and so forth, and can transport the consumer. In other words, it works as a motor vehicle in all respects. Consumers are supposed to be able to rely upon people who operate car stores as they are UCC merchants. It is presumed that the dealer-merchant understands vehicles.
  • Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose: If a consumer tells a dealer-merchant that he is buying the vehicle for a particular purpose the dealer is on notice regarding what the consumer is going to be using the vehicle for. The dealer-merchant is then averring that the vehicle being sold is appropriate for the stated purpose. For example, if a consumer is purchasing a very small car with a small engine, and orders a trailer hitch added to it, and tells the dealer that he intends to haul a large boat, the dealer is agreeing that this vehicle will discharge this particular purpose. If the engine or transmission fails, when the boat is being hauled, the warranty will be violated and the dealer will have to compensate the consumer.

With such potential burdens being placed upon dealers regarding these two implied warranties, it is prudent to disclaim them.

  1. Service Contracts

Service contracts may act as warranties but they are not by legal definition. They are certainly contracts for services relating to the maintenance of the vehicle. But they are not intrinsic to the purchase of the vehicle as they are paid for separately, an additional sum of money. In addition, they may also be purchased after the initial sale. A dealer may offer a written warranty, separate and apart from the manufacturer’s warranty, and if it is part of the initial sale of the vehicle, and is part of the sales price, it would have to subscribe to Mag-Moss.

The law addressing service contracts, for the most part, is state law, although Mag-Moss addresses it broadly. For example, is a service contract an insurance product or not? The answer would depend upon state law.

  1. Lemon Law

Lemon law addresses the procedures for the failure of the manufacturer’s warranty for new vehicles. Generally, if a warranted problem can’t be corrected, after three attempts, the consumer gets his money back. Some states have lemon laws covering used vehicles.

  1. As Is/No Warranty

This simple term should be thought of as the complete avoidance of any warranties or promises regarding the condition of the vehicle. The purchaser of the vehicle must trust his own examination of the vehicle which may have defects. The FTC’s Used Car Rule, with its mandated buyer’s guide, addresses this issue. There are as many as 15 states which do not allow as-is sales. And, of course, slick plaintiffs’ counsel have legal strategies which have surmounted this appellation, at times, and held the dealer liable.

Dealers should make certain that their disclaiming warranty language is clear, accurate, and conspicuous, as there is much at stake. If the language is not correct in their documents, it is perfect fodder for a class action. Finance managers should be conversant with these terms in case a consumer begins asking questions about warranties. These questions are easy to frame but are not easy to answer. Govern yourselves accordingly.

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Checklists, Word Clouds and a Bright Future

Checklists, Word Clouds and a Bright Future

It could be said that compliance is long, life is short, and success is very far off, if one wished to recast an old adage for the automotive world. But there could be wise shortcuts for your dealer clients if they would pay heed to the key trends in the legislature and the types of compliance violations which are being prosecuted.

Everyone knows what a checklist is. They are vitally important for businesses to help focus their attention on the key issues which could become problems later. The same idea applies for agents and dealers. Checklists for the content of deal jackets, red flags, the safeguards rule and privacy issues should be created and relied upon.

Obviously, compliance, in general, should be approached in the same manner. By knowing what issues they may be facing, and which behaviors to avoid, agents can help dealers function more effectively. As part of their processes, dealers should use various checklists and may wish to consider the accompanying checklists and word clouds below.

Word clouds are far less well-known than checklists but can be helpful aids. A word cloud is a visual representation of text data which takes the shape of a cloud. Terms, and the relative importance of each term, are shown with font size and color.

Anticipated Legislative Activity in 2017

The American Financial Services Association (AFSA) is a trade association and monitors federal and state legislative activity on behalf of its members, which are financial institutions.

The analysis by AFSA of state bills initiated over the past several legislative sessions provides some indicia as to the issues which state legislatures have identified as worthy of legislative attention. Dealers and their associations may wish to influence the voting of their legislators regarding these issues. This checklist of subjects incurring legislator attention includes:

  • Ancillary product scrutiny: Since 2012, there has been a 121% increase in legislative activity regarding products such as debt protection and service contracts. These products have become increasingly important to dealers’ incomes and such legislation should be monitored.
  • Automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) systems: As with red light photographic monitors there is some consideration for monitoring all vehicles on the road. Financing sources would be able to identify where vehicles are, as would dealers.
  • Car buyers’ bill of rights: This is a pesky issue which began in California and provided substantive changes to the law in that state. There are various references to it in some legislatures but nothing substantive just yet.
  • Dealer reserve: As with ancillary products, dealer participation is being scrutinized. Dealers should be aware of the “kickback” myth, which claims that, when consumers do not get the buy rate, the additional interest rate paid is a kickback to the dealer.
  • Documentation fees: The trend continues to force dealers to justify their documentation fees. In other words, this fee should only cover actual costs, not profit. Other states should emulate Florida, where the mandated documentation fee disclosure includes profit as part of the amount charged to the consumer. This protection would avoid any allegations of overcharging or deception.
  • Driver/owner liability shifting: If dealers loan or rent vehicles or allow test drives, this issue becomes highly important. Dealers should always have consumers sign an agreement stating, in the clearest terms, that consumers are fully liable for any consequences for taking custody of the vehicle.
  • Electronic contracting: Some consumer advocates remain concerned that UETA and ESIGN will allow for dealer overreach.
  • Electronic titling: The era of paper titles will one day disappear.
  • Payment assurance technology: Payment assurance technology essentially means starter interrupt devices, which are quite pro-consumer, albeit some legislators think otherwise. These devices increase access to credit and avoid dangerous repossessions.

There are numerous other issues which are trending in state legislatures. The list includes fair lending issues, fraudulent lien release/non-fraud lien release requirements, ignition interlock devices, lienholder notification, mechanics liens/impound fraud, repossession, bankruptcy/default triggers, repair/towing, excessive or fraudulent liens, retail installment sale requirement and restrictions, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2016, state legislation specific to vehicle sales and leasing, trade-in calculations, transportation network companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar), vehicle rescission/turn contract restrictions, dealer relations/franchise legislation, and contract restrictions.

The word cloud here would appear as:

Anticipated Prosecutorial Activity in 2017

Certain state attorneys general have clearly taken the lead in prosecuting dealers. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman leads the pack with four major settlements regarding ancillary products coupled with payment packing in the past several years. Plaintiffs’ counsel follow the lead of state attorneys general and certainly heed the four “D”s of cases to prosecute: discrimination, deception, dead ends and debt traps.

This word cloud for agents and dealers would appear as:

The basic checklist of what issues will be prosecuted against dealers in 2017, and which should be avoided, would appear to be:

  • Advertising infractions
  • Payment packing
  • Improper crediting of the trade-in, cash, rebate or coupon
  • Misrepresenting the outstanding lien on the trade-in
  • Misrepresenting bank fees, delivery fees and packs
  • Misrepresenting the residual factor
  • Misuse of “N/A” or use it as a term for “national average”
  • Intentionally confuse the money factor amount as the interest rate

Dealers also should endeavor to educate consumers on the basic myths of auto finance:

  • The residual is the amount the consumer will get back at the end of the lease
  • All leases provide equity build up
  • Consumers can get out of a contract at any time without added cost
  • All transactions have a three-day right of rescission

Dealers must also be sure their F&I teams are not engaging in any noncompliant behaviors. That list includes:

  • Overstate the value and benefits of extended service agreements, car care service plans, etch, and other ancillary products
  • Spot-deliver the vehicle with the intention of dehorsing the customer or never honoring the initial offer
  • Overcharge on state taxes and battery, tire and lease fees
  • Have the lessee pay all the taxes upfront in a state where it is unnecessary
  • Relate to the lessee that multiple security deposits will lower the lease rate when that benefit is not applied
  • Actively discriminate against discrete and insular minorities
  • Misrepresent residual-based financing
  • Obfuscate the terms and conditions of the many insurance products such as decreasing term life, credit life, or payment interruption insurance

And, unfortunately, there are many others. It should be noted that there is nothing new on this list which hasn’t been seen in years past.

The Bright Future of 2017

The bright future for dealers, from a compliance perspective, is that there will be fewer new compliance initiatives. In fact, existing compliance laws may be pruned and repealed. The checklist for this bright future is:

  • HR 1737 and SB 2663: The House bill has passed and the Senate companion bill is pending. This act would essentially nullify the disparate impact theory as it applies to dealers and financing sources.
  • CFPB v. PHH Corp.: This federal appellate court opinion ruled that the CFPB is unconstitutionally organized. The new chief executive will be able to treat the CFPB as he would any other government agency. The CFPB will no longer be shielded from executive branch oversight.
  • Financial Choice Act of 2016: This pending legislation will further erode the CFPB’s lending guidance.
  • New chief of executive, Congress and state legislatures

These new engines of government will not seek to add needless regulation and may even repeal the burgeoning compliance burden placed upon the dealer community. But some new laws will pass.

Nevertheless, prudence dictates that dealer compliance efforts should remain as a significant part of a dealer’s business protocol. And dealers need to remain vigilant regarding these matters since passing consumer laws is often championed by the media.

The bright future word cloud for 2017 is:

Govern yourselves accordingly.

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100 Years of Compliance History

100 Years of Compliance History

The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) will be celebrating its 100th birthday in January 2017. Founded in 1916, NADA has been a tireless advocate for dealer interests and was created to respond to regulatory and compliance issues. To place the origin of NADA in chronological perspective, here is a short list of vehicle-related historical facts:

1891: First car accident.

1904: First speeding ticket was written.

1914: First electric traffic light was introduced.

1914: For the first time, the federal budget included money to purchase two vehicles for the President of the United States.

Over the course of this NADA century, the business of selling, financing and leasing vehicles has become complicated. In 1940, for example, a dealer could sell and finance a vehicle using only one piece of paper. Today, it takes approximately 39 feet. The history of the car business is replete with a complex history of the development of compliance law.

A 2014 study conducted at the direction of NADA concluded that federal compliance alone costs dealers an average of $183,000 per rooftop or $2,400 per dealership employee. This large expense is due to the ever-increasing compliance burden which is born from the continual addition of new federal laws. One need only review this chronology to recognize this truth as it relates to financing and leasing vehicles.

Dealers are responsible for following these laws and regulations in addition to many others:

1812: Office of Foreign Asset Control (present form 1950 and 2001)

It’s hard to believe that a law passed during the War of 1812 could have any relevance to the car business. Economic sanctions against foreign states date to this war, when the U.S. administered sanctions against Great Britain in retaliation for the harassment of American sailors. Today, of course, dealers must not engage in business with specially designated nationals (SDNs) pursuant to this same law, which has been extensively revised over these many years.

1914: Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act

The FTC Act created the Federal Trade Commission. Pursuant to the basic powers granted to the FTC to police unfair and deceptive acts and practices (UDAP), the agency has prosecuted many cases against dealers. Deceptive advertising is a major target. In addition, the FTC has mandated various regulations such as the Used Car Rule (see below).

1926: Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)

All dealers should avail themselves of arbitration. The FAA has been upheld many times in court challenges. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the Dodd-Frank Act (see below) will probably deny the application of the FAA in cases where the arbitration provision contains a class action waiver.

1958: Automobile Information Disclosure Act (Monroney Sticker)

The lack of disclosure regarding vehicle prices led to this law, which requires vehicles to have a label placed on the vehicle with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) and other information.

1966: Modern Class Actions Rule

Class actions have been available for consumer redress for over two centuries. Every consumer attorney wishes to convert a consumer complaint into a class action as there are large fees involved. However, before the 1960s, consumers had to opt into a class action. Now, consumers must opt out. The modern rule assumes that all affected consumers will wish to join a class action.

1968: Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and Regulations Z and M

TILA had a major impact on how dealers transact business when they execute retail installment sale contracts and lease contracts. Disclosures, calculations, protocols and advertising have all been affected.

1970: Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

FCRA addresses the entire credit reporting process. Dealers must observe certain protocols for obtaining and using credit reports. As with the ECOA, below, dealers must send adverse action notices for credit declinations.

1972: IRS Form 8300 Cash Reporting Rule

Dealers must account for cash transactions of $10,000 or more and must follow certain legal dictates.

1972: Federal Odometer Act (FOA)

The FOA was passed to provide consumers with disclosures regarding the accurate mileage of the vehicles they are purchasing. Manipulation of odometers in vehicles is strictly prohibited and there are both civil and criminal sanctions for violating FOA.

1974: Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and Regulation B

The ECOA’s primary purpose is to outlaw discrimination. Dealers are creditors and must judicially utilize the credit application process and provide adverse action notices should credit not be extended.

1975: Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act

This federal law requires dealers, as sellers, to provide written warranties with their vehicles when a warranty is included in the transaction regarding the vehicle itself.

1975: Holder Rule

This Rule provides that an exact disclosure must be included in a retail installment sale contract which explains that any valid consumer claim or defense which the consumer has against the originating dealer also apply to any assignee of the contract.

1985: Used Car Rule

This rule is truly draconian. When selling a used vehicle, the dealer must post a notice which describes the mechanical condition and any warranty terms which may apply. The font type, font size and the size and color of the paper are exactly prescribed.

1985: Credit Practices Rule

The Credit Practices Rule provides both substantive and disclosure elements for dealer contracts. For example, onerous conditions favoring dealers such as pyramiding late charges or confessions of judgment are illegal.

1991: Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)

The TCPA was recently revised, and along with other do-not-call laws, restricts how dealers may contact the public. This collection of laws is somewhat involved.

1999: Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA)

GLBA requires dealers to implement the Privacy Rule and the Safeguards Rule. Disclosures and internal procedures at the dealership, in maintaining consumer records and sharing them, are strictly addressed.

2008: Red Flags Rule

The Red Flags Rule was created by the FTC, along with other government agencies such as the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), to help prevent identity theft. However, it didn’t go into effect until 2011 due to industry resistance.

2010: Dodd-Frank Act

The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is an omnibus act which created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB has extensive powers and a large budget. Richard Cordray, the CFPB’s Executive Director, identified the CFPB’s mission as policing the “Four Ds”: discrimination, deception, debt traps and dead ends. Franchise dealers are not subject to the direct jurisdiction of the CFPB thanks to the lobbying efforts of NADA.

In addition to the federal rules listed above, states have passed acts modeled after the FTC Act and utilize state UDAP authority. UDAP is a very broad and powerful source of authority. Violations of federal law are often considered violations of the state UDAP law even when the federal law doesn’t allow for a private cause of action. In addition, class actions routinely depend upon UDAP, as does the state attorney general.

The states have passed numerous laws over this century, such as the Uniform Commercial Code, retail installment sales and leasing acts, credit repair acts, and so forth, adding considerably to the compliance burden.

In reviewing this chronology, it is obvious that dealers have a very heavy compliance burden to discharge. And, as the century continued, more laws were added on a regular basis. It leads to two questions: Does the benefit to consumers outweigh the cost of this compliance burden? What other laws will be added to this list in the coming NADA century?

Unfortunately for the industry, one can safely predict more regulatory compliance will be added in this next NADA century. Compliance costs are here to stay. Govern yourselves accordingly.

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Perception Can Be Reality — and Liability

Perception Can Be Reality — and Liability

In my attorney general (AG) days, it was a running joke that taking legal action against dealers had no downside, regardless of the merits of the case. We joked about generating newspaper headlines that might read, “Attorney General Rips Off Car Dealers.”

The belief was that, no matter what cause of action or how flimsy the evidence, filing a case against a car dealer would always be a victory for the public. Dealers could always be found liable. As a professional working in the P&A segment, you can’t help but be concerned. Let’s take a closer look at how car buyers view our industry, how that perception affects the number and severity of legal and regulatory actions, and how it can be improved.

Casual Dismissal

The same perception of automobile dealers held by AGs and prosecutors can be said about private plaintiffs. It has risen to an article of faith, for example, that a spot delivery is always fraudulent, a so-called “yo- yo” deal. At one of the auto finance roundtables the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held several years ago, I spoke with a highly-regarded consumer attorney who testified that he never saw a case of a spot delivery which wasn’t fraudulent.

I knew this attorney and discussed his assertion after his testimony. I asked him how many spot delivery transactions he had seen and he said several hundred. I replied by saying that there are hundreds of thousands of spotted transactions annually. Certainly he was not asserting that they are all fraudulent? He would not recant. I also told him that the Florida AG’s office had examined in excess of 100,000 transactions and determined that fraudulent spot deliveries were a very small percentage; in fact, a far smaller percentage that I had envisioned. Yet, today, spot deliveries are still casually referred to as “yo-yos,” which is both pejorative and inaccurate.

The CEO of a major vehicle company once remarked to me that, if a dealer ever appears in front of a jury, the case is lost and the damages will be substantial. “Just about everyone thinks that they have been ripped off by a car dealer,” he said.

Litigating issues in court is difficult for dealers because of the entrenched bias against them. This bias is the consequence of the number of complaints filed by consumers against dealers and the chronic evaluation of the trustworthy status of car salesmen.

Actions and Complaints

Dealers remain a favorite target for regulators. For many years, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer rights organization, and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI), an association of state and local consumer protection officials, has produced an annual listing of the Top 10 consumer complaints. The author was a participant with NACPI for many years.

Thirty-seven agencies received a total of 281,639 complaints for the year of 2014 to rank these industries regarding the number of consumer complaints. The rankings for 2015 are currently being compiled and will be made available in the coming months. So here are the Top 10 consumer complaints for 2014:

  1. Automobile
  2. Home improvement
  3. Credit/debt
  4. (tie) Retail sales
  5. (tie) Utilities
  6. Services
  7. Landlord/tenant
  8. Home solicitations
  9. (tie) Health products and services
  10. (tie) Internet sales
  11. Fraud
  12. Household goods

This survey has been taken for many years, dating back to the 1990s, and as long as the author can remember, automobile complaints have been No. 1 on this list. It should be added that these results vary by state. In Michigan, for example, automobile complaints are in fourth place. In Missouri, they aren’t listed in the top ten postings. And, for the FTC rankings for 2015, automobile complaints are in eighth place. However, in Ohio, automobile complaints are No. 1.

Ranking Professions by Honesty and Ethics

For over four decades the Gallup organization has been polling the American public to determine how professions are regarded in terms of honesty and ethics. The 2015 had a surprise for the automotive industry: Vehicle sales professionals are no longer in last place for perhaps the first time in 40 years. The bad news is they are now tied with telemarketers, senators and congressmen for the second to last spot. (Lobbyists have moved to the bottom.)

  1. Nurses
  2. Pharmacists
  3. Medical doctors
  4. High school teachers
  5. Policemen
  6. Clergy
  7. Funeral directors
  8. Accountants
  9. Journalists
  10. Bankers
  11. Building contractors
  12. Lawyers
  13. Labor union leaders
  14. Business executives
  15. Stockbrokers
  16. Advertising practitioners
  17. Car salesmen (tie)
  18. Telemarketers (tie)
  19. Members of Congress (tie)
  20. Lobbyists

Why does this matter? Dealers are weary of hearing about the ever-increasing demands of compliance. But they will continue to be weary, since there will never be an end to such regulation. Being No. 1 in consumer complaints and being viewed dismally in terms of ethics and honesty greatly spawns investigations and lawsuits.

As big targets for being sued and paying substantial legal damages, dealers need to actively reduce and control the complaints which are filed with government agencies and attorneys. Dealers also need to improve the perception that they are not trustworthy.

This litigation problem will worsen — and may worsen significantly — when arbitration will no longer be available for installment financing and lease transactions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be taking such action probably in 2017. Every consumer attorney will seek to transform a single complaint against a dealer into a class action, and many of them will be successful in doing so due to the wealth of complaints filed by the public and the unfortunate perception that dealers aren’t honest in their business transactions. Attorneys love to refer to developments of this nature as “opening the floodgates of litigation,” and some welcome the opportunity for new business.

Top Ten Suggested Remedies

Dealers need to take action to rebut these false impressions and prepare for the future. Here are 10 short and long-term strategies which may help with these challenges:

  1. Complaint management program: Dealers should scrupulously redress all consumer complaints before they are filed elsewhere. They should have a complaint protocol at every store.
  2. Mediation: In place of arbitration, dealers should consider implementing a mediation program.
  3. Be more self-regulating: All dealers should be active participants in their trade organizations and 20 Groups, and they should advance fair, legal and ethical practices.
  4. Brag: Dealers contribute substantial sums of money to charities and local community interests. They also are enormous advertisers in the media. The media should be encouraged to report about all the good purposes to which dealers contribute.
  5. Compliance and ethics training: Training and ethics programs should be implemented by every dealer. These programs include NADA University, NIADA’s Certified Dealer program, AFIP, and NAF’s Consumer Credit Compliance Certification Program. Customers should see signs, placards and notices about this training at the store, on websites, and in other dealer materials. When interacting with dealers, consumers should be acutely aware of these dealer efforts.
  6. Trade associations: Our industry trade associations (e.g., NADA, NIADA, ACVL, NVLA, state ADA’s, NAF, NABD) should continue to professionalize the image of dealers everywhere, and all dealers should support these organizations.
  7. Act more like Congress: As indicated above, congressmen are tied with car salesmen on the list of least trustworthy professions. Unlike car salesmen, however, congressmen get reelected 96% of the time. Customers rarely, if ever, return to the same dealer at that rate. How does this happen? Voters take possession of their congressmen (e.g., ‘“He’s my Congressman.”‘ which is in contrast with the entire Congress. It is similar to other statements such as “He’s my attorney or doctor.”) Dealers need to personalize their services so that a customer may be tempted to say ‘“He’s my dealer.”‘ or ‘“He’s my salesman.”‘ Consequently, customers will be far less likely to file a formal complaint and will return to purchase other vehicles, as well as recommend that dealership to other people.
  8. Emulate Florida law: A wise law was inspired thinking by the FADA and it prompted the Florida legislature to pass it several years ago. Section 501.98, Florida Statutes, requires that, at least 30 days before bringing any claim against a motor vehicle dealer for an unfair or deceptive trade practice, a consumer must provide the dealer with a written demand letter stating the name, address, and telephone number of the consumer; the name and address of the dealer; a description of the facts that serve as the basis for the claim; the amount of damages; and copies of any documents in the possession of the consumer which relate to the claim.

In other words, Florida dealers will have a chance to resolve a consumer complaint before a case is filed. In the absence of arbitration, this law is all the more important. All states should pass such a law.

  1. License all sales professionals: Professionalizing the sales force and having a mechanism to eliminate people who are ethically challenged would improve the public perception of our trade. This licensing could be quite simple and inexpensive. Once obtained, licenses should be posted at the store.
  2. License all F&I professionals: Finance managers should have the same status as real estate agents or titling agents. Finance managers should be required to understand their ethical and legal duties. Reasonable cost-efficient testing and licensing, paid for by adding the cost to dealer fees born by customers as part of the transaction, should be the objective. The license of the finance manager should be posted for customers to see.

It is not an easy task to blot away past perceptions. However, in an increasingly sophisticated and litigious marketplace, not improving one’s reputation and preparing for the legal future would simply be unwise. Govern yourselves accordingly.

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Compliance Roulette

Compliance Roulette

I often think that those dealers who become embroiled in litigation, or are the subject of a government investigation, are sometimes simply the ones who, by the spin of the roulette wheel, attract the attention of a plaintiff’s attorney or a government regulator. Even the most ethical dealers and well-run dealerships will make legal errors which could be the subject of a lawsuit.

I suspect that I could audit any dealer and find some form of infraction due to the many onerous regulations which dealers now must endure. According to a recent study, compliance costs alone amount to more than $2,400 per employee or $183,000 per store. (Does this huge cost truly increase consumer protection proportionate to that cost?)

Avoiding the Roulette Effect

Obviously, running a perfectly squeaky clean organization, without making any compliance mistakes, would produce this result. But such perfection is simply illusory. Dealers need to undertake a three-prong approach to the roulette challenge:

  1. Pay attention to the currently hot issues and have a remedy, or at least plausible deniability, regarding them.
  2. A compliance management system
  3. Periodic in-house audits with an established and comprehensive checklist so nothing is missed.

Only the first prong will be addressed in this article.

The Hot Issues

Over the past 25 years or so, certain issues seem to appear, disappear and are revived again. For example, around the turn of the century, there was a series of alleged discrimination class actions filed against captive finance companies where the settlements were for a 10-year period with the reserve being capped. A similar issue reemerged with the CFPB, in the past few years, regarding disparate impact, another alleged discrimination allegation which affects dealers.

The use of used-car buyers guides has been policed intermittently, but not routinely, from time to time. The FTC revisits this matter periodically. State attorneys general became interested in buyers guides a number of years ago as well. They convened a number of investigations of dealers all across the country. Those investigations were very quickly abandoned.

Advertising enforcement has recently been a high priority for the FTC; and on the state level, it is policed vigorously and then not so much. I would estimate that there are over 50 of these types of issues which are sometimes “hot” but at other times grow quite cold. They only emerge because they attract someone’s attention based upon complaints or some attorney, regulator or organization targets them.

Recent Cases and Regulatory Actions

  • Recalls

This is certainly one of the hottest issues facing dealers presently. There are various regulatory and legislative proposals being considered, and there have been enforcement actions taken when dealers indicate to consumers that remedial actions have applied in cases where vehicles are the subject of a recall.

Examples include certified pre-owned programs or when a used vehicle is presented to a consumer with the assertion that the vehicle has been mechanically evaluated. In these cases, the dealer should check to see if the vehicle has been recalled and what corrective measures should be implemented. In addition, dealers should document with the consumer how they are addressing the potential of a recall in a sale and in the repair shop. Finally, dealers must track this issue for any legal developments.

  • Documentary fees

A state supreme court decision from last year ruled that a closing fee not directly related to the expenses incurred in closing a sale may be subject to legal action and damages. In other words, a cost accounting analysis of a documentary fee must demonstrate that it relates to the expense of a closing.

Remarkably, the state law did not provide an explicit definition, but the court found one: In states where such a definition is lacking, dealers must evaluate what they can include in this amount. They also can ask their dealer associations to lobby the legislature and include “profit” as one of the acceptable components of a documentary fee.

The CFPB’s Nine Priority Goals and Director Cordray’s Four Ds

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently announced its nine goals for the next two years. Fortunately for dealers, only three of these issues may affect them. For the past four years, the CFPB’s director, Richard Cordray, has summarized the bureau’s emphases using an acronym, the so-called “Four Ds.” There is overlap between the goals and the “Ds.”

Once again, it’s time to applaud the NADA for preventing franchise dealers from being under the direct jurisdiction of the CFPB in the Dodd-Frank Act. Actions of the CFPB may, tangentially, still affect dealers, however.

3 of 9

The three issues on this list which affect dealers are arbitration, consumer reporting, and debt collection.

  • Arbitration

It would appear that arbitration will either be eliminated or truncated by the CFPB to reduce its efficacy vis-a-vis dealers. However, until then, every dealer should have an arbitration agreement with his customers. The major benefit will be to avoid class actions. Even if the CFPB eliminates arbitration entirely, it will probably be prospective.

A dealer’s past transactions may possibly remain protected by the arbitration language. The arbitration language which a dealer uses should be recently drafted, be subject to only the Federal Arbitration Act, not state law, and have some history of being tested in the courts. Some zealous attorneys have drafted language which so much favors the dealer that they are not enforced by the courts as they are considered unconscionable. In addition, the arbitration language should be the same in whatever document it appears. Plaintiffs’ attorneys despise arbitration because it prevents them from filing class actions, which is a compelling reason for dealers to use it.

  • Consumer reporting

There are various issues which need to be addressed regarding this topic. Dealers need to know and understand adverse action notices, accessing credit reports, and the correct use of credit applications. Dealers should be using legally competent adverse action forms and credit applications. Obviously, reporting inaccurate information may invite legal action.

  • Debt collection

Dealers who have buy here, pay here (BHPH) operations need to know the law in this area and observe it. Recent actions against a major BHPH dealer should underscore this issue. Constant harassing telephone calls or threatening false arrest, calls to the consumer at work or to the consumer’s personal references can be a violation.

The Four Ds

  • Deceptive marketing

The basic definition in consumer law for deception is this: Does the action have the tendency or capacity to mislead a consumer? Follow this rule and, in most cases, there won’t be an allegation of deceptive marketing.

  • Debt traps

Some BHPH transactions might rise to being labeled debt traps. The remedy for dealers is to serve their customers as caretakers, not undertakers, as a prominent advisor to the industry has quipped.

  • Dead ends

Dead ends are debt collections as discussed above.

  • Discrimination

Every dealer should now be acquainted with this issue. And, every dealer should also be acquainted with, and implementing, the NADA’s Fair Lending program which is almost a perfect foil and solution to this preposterous allegation by the CFPB.

Consumer Car Law Attorney Associations

It may surprise some dealers that there are over 1,000 attorneys who practice consumer car law, which means their practices are based upon suing dealers for various alleged infractions. One of these associations is having a conference shortly and announced its agenda of targeted dealer practices. The hot issues which these plaintiffs’ attorneys are targeting are arbitration, “yo-yo” financing schemes, insurance and extended warranty scams, and repossession, GPS and starter-interrupt issues, based upon their agenda.

  • Arbitration

Please see above.

  • Yo-yo financing schemes

This is the pejorative term for the perfectly legal practice, in most states, to spot deliver a vehicle. Dealers need to document the spot delivery with an accurate written description in the Buyer’s Order or a separate document so that there is no misunderstanding.

  • Insurance and extended warranty scams

To avoid legal battles regarding ancillary products, dealers need to be certain they are appropriate for the consumers they are serving and they are documented and explained.

  • Repossession, GPS and starter-interrupt issues

Starter-interrupt and GPS devices help consumers who otherwise couldn’t purchase a vehicle since they allow BHPH dealers to accept greater risk. It frees up capital since dealers can locate the vehicle and repossess it without other costs such as skip tracing. Once again, dealers should document the existence of these devices and not charge consumers for them.

In conclusion, forewarned is forearmed. Smart dealers are always prepared for the exigencies of doing business. Having a remedy for these current hot topics is part of this smart process. Govern yourselves accordingly.

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