June 25, 2010

Department of Insurance Slams Consumer Direct Warranty Services for Unlicensed Sale of Insurance

Dilbert taps into consumer frustration with the comic strip posted below. Call it wry humor. But the California Department of Insurance doesn't think consumer fraud is funny. Whether they are referred to as "service contracts," "extended warranties" or "mechanical breakdown insurance," vehicle repair agreements are a big profit center for new and used car dealers. Telemarketers or internet schemes may tout them as well. Often such contracts are unnecessary. Even illusory. Some of these products are legal, but many are not. In the midst of a slick sales pitch, almost no one reads the prolix printed warranty form. That is a mistake Dilbert's "confusopoly consultant" wants you to make. Now the Department of Insurance is clamping down.

For many years, car dealers have claimed that these after-market products do not qualify as insurance and they do not have to be licensed to sell them. That may change. On June 17, 2010, the California Department of Insurance issued a Cease and Desist order against Consumer Direct Warranty Services and related entities. You can read the Department's full press release here.

Some dealer service contracts fall within an exception to the insurance rules. However, in order to exploit that loophole, car dealers must follow certain procedures, have back-up insurance, provide cancellation rights and comply with other regulations.

"If you want to sell insurance in California, you must obtain a license, have adequate financial reserves and you must not deceive consumers," said Commissioner Poizner. "In order to protect California consumers, there are specific requirements for insurance companies seeking to do business in California. If companies do not abide by these requirements, they will not be permitted to sell insurance in our state."

The Insurance commissioner's website goes a step further to promote consumer protection. Check out its "Guide to Auto Service Contracts and Agreements" here. If you have purchased a service contract or extended warranty that does not comply with these rules, contact us even before your car breaks down.

June 24, 2010

NCLC Consumer Resources

nclc_logo.jpg The National Consumer Law Center just launched a new website. Check it out here. The nonprofit center, headquartered in Boston, has been a premier source of assistance for consumers, legal services and consumer lawyers for decades.

Its new website provides information on NCLC's recent reports, numerous publications and current initiatives. Among other things, NCLC publishes reports on scams and predatory trends in consumer transactions, manuals and treatises on a wide variety of legal topics affecting consumers, as well as other books for lawyers and the public alike.Return%20to%20Sender.JPG NCLC is the publisher of "Return to Sender - Getting a Replacement for Your Lemon Car" by Nancy Barron.

In addition to its publications, NCLC funds research, legal conferences and consumer education programs on a wide range of important consumer topics -- from automotive fraud and warranty law, to financial abuse of the elderly, energy policy, student loans, and predatory lending.

Kemnitzer, Barron & Krieg is actively involved in the work of NCLC. Bryan Kemnitzer is a member of the partner's council and Nancy Barron currently serves on its board of directors.

June 11, 2010

Car Dealers Fear Financial Reform

Finance reform has been bumped from front page news by international incidents and the catastrophic BP oil spill. But even as public attention has shifted elsewhere, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has not lost its focus on Washington. They are lobbying hard against legislation aimed at improving consumer protection. Why?

sleazy-salesman-thumb.jpgThe landmark financial reform package that is working its way through Congress would greatly improve financial oversight of lenders. This means a wide variety of entities who share in the business of lending money, not just banks. After the House and Senate passed different versions of the bills, lawmakers from both bodies are in the process of reconciling the two versions. The battle is drawn, because the House passed a bill that exempted car dealers from financial reform, but a similar amendment failed in the Senate.

The outcome of this process will greatly affect the way cars are sold in coming years. NADA is lobbying for its car dealers to be exempt from financial regulation, and is trying hard to persuade committee members that dealers don't get involved in car loans. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Paul Wiseman of USA Today reports, "auto dealerships originate 79% of auto loans and leases." He goes on to quote the non-partisan Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy as concluding "that auto finance is demonstrably susceptible to unfair and deceptive practices." You can read USA Today's article here.

The argument made by car dealers that they are all small mom & pop shops is also far-fetched. While many are indeed locally owned, thousands of dealerships are controlled by mega-dealers like AutoNation whose 100+ stores have reportedly sold more than 7,000,000 cars. These multi-state conglomerates keep a short leash on customer finance through their tightly controlled on site dealer finance departments and preferred lender programs which direct dealer-arranged financing to a handful of financial institutions.

Just this week, the trade publication, Automotive News reported NADA to be particularly concerned that the proposed consumer financial protection agency would have scrutiny over sale of service contracts and aftermarket items. As we have often discussed on this blog (click on "Shopping for Car Loans") regulation of dealer finance departments is long overdue.

June 10, 2010

Vehicle Self Storage Is Not Always Safe and Secure

Many self storage facilities advertise long term garage space. Beware: this is a risky business for consumers. Storage companies often buy up properties in marginal neighborhoods on freeway frontage or on the fringe of town, where warehouse space is dirt cheap - but not always safe and not always secure.

Advertisements tout security, safety and trust. That trust may be misplaced. At the time of the space rental, storage tenants are often told they need separate insurance for their goods. That should not mean you have to buy it from them, with no opportunity to negotiate. If you are tempted to buy insurance onsite, check with your usual insurance company first. If the vehicle is stored for an extended period of time, the car may qualify for reduced registration as a "non-opp". The Form for a non-operational vehicle can be downloaded from the Department of Motor Vehicles here While you should keep the car insured for theft, be aware that insurance for garaged vehicles not being driven is very low. Your usual carrier will probably give you a discount.

secure.vehicle.storage.antique.car.storage_N.J.jpgWith summer just around the corner and masses of Californians – especially students – on the move, many car owners find they need long term storage for a car or truck. If you are in this category, think it through. Will storage costs of an old car exceed depreciation over the rental term? It might be best just to sell the car now, and buy another used car when you return. Do not expect to be able to just park it on the street. Whether you are in the city or suburbs, most communities have a local ordinance limiting parking to 24-72 hours or by permit only. The best thing, of course, is to find a friend with an empty carport or a three-car garage. Good luck with that! More commonly, you may have to find long-term vehicle storage for a price. The E-How website has some good advice for storing vehicles, including the selection of a dry facility, adding a fuel-stabilizing additive to the gas tank, jacking the body up to relieve weight on tires, washing and covering the car. Further details can be read here.

We also advise that you remove all valuables from the car, even though it is in a locked space. This includes all information concerning the vehicle, like the owner’s manual, purchase documents and warranty history. Never keep the title with the car. Remove even the registration and insurance papers you would normally keep with you when driving. And of course, do not leave a set of keys in the vehicle. Self storage units are notorious for their high burglary rate, and although you hope the car will be secure, don’t take any chances with things you can easily remove.