March 14, 2012

San Bernardino Court Approves Class Benefits

Judge David Cohn of the San Bernardino County Superior Court granted final approval of the settlement in a class action on March 5, 2012. That order paves the way for distribution of benefits to a class of about 260 California consumers who, collectively, have been assessed $2,397,463 in debt. The defendants have agreed to waive and extinguish the entire amount and instruct the three major credit unions -- Transunion, Experian and Equifax -- to delete the negative trade line for each class member. In addition, Alta Vista will refund 100% of the amount it collected from the class members who had tried to pay off the alleged deficiency.

The class is defined as California consumers who had purchased vehicles on credit, whose accounts were assigned to Alta Vista Credit Union, and whose vehicles were then repossessed. The plaintiffs alleged that certain notice sent by Alta Vista between July 9, 2006 and October 31, 2010 in connection with the repossessions violated California consumer protection laws. Class members should check their credit report to verify that the account information has been corrected. More information is available here.

March 14, 2012

FTC Action on Auto Fraud

Today the Federal Trade Commission announced that it has taken several steps to stop deceptive advertising, in which car dealers falsely promise to pay off trade-ins, no matter what consumers owe.

David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, noted the confusion many car buyers face when a dealer offers to "take care of" their trade-in. "Buying a new car or truck is a major financial commitment, and the last thing consumers need is to be tricked into thinking that a dealer will 'pay off' what they owe on their current vehicle, when they really won't," Vladeck said. In addition to settling litigation against certain dealers, the FTC posted a new consumer alert titled "Negative Equity Ads and Auto-Trade-ins" to help consumers understand widespread deceptive practices associated with this type of advertising.

Meanwhile, the FTC is seeking input on auto sales and finance issues from consumers and consumer advocates nationwide. After a series of roundtables last year, it has requested public comments on motor vehicle sales, financing and leasing topics until April 1, 2012. Interested parties can submit comments online by following the instructions accessbile here.

March 13, 2012

Alameda County Court Gives Final Approval to Class

An Alameda County judge has granted final approval of the settlement in a class action involving nearly $27 million in consumer debt. The case is Dixon v County Financial Services, et al (Alameda Superior Court Case No. RG10537949). The defendants have agreed to waive and extinguish the entire amount and instruct the three major credit unions -- Transunion, Experian and Equifax -- to delete the negative trade line. In addition the defendants will refund 100% of the amount they collected from the class members who had tried to pay off the alleged deficiency.

The class is defined as California consumers who had purchased vehicles on credit, whose accounts were assigned to Automotive Funding Group dba County Financial Service, and whose vehicles were then repossessed. The plaintiffs alleged that certain notice sent by the defendants in connection with the repossessions violated California consumer protection laws. Distribution is expected shortly. More information is available here.

March 12, 2012

Driving on Sunshine – The Evolution of EV Energy Sources

Electric vehicles continue to make headlines even as the genre struggles for market share. Bloomberg and others recently reported that GM will pause production of the Chevy Volt this spring to adjust inventory levels. Luxury brand Fiskar cringed under "Bad Karma" press, when Consumer Reports complained that its own Fiskar Karma had to be towed to the shop. Tesla, on the other hand, has a waiting list for its popular EVs. Nissan reported its U.S. sales of the hybrid Leaf passed the 15,000 mark late in 2011, and has plans to increase production at its Tennessee plant. Ford is making noise about an Electric Focus. Toyota plans to add a plug-in to its hybrid Prius line.

Policy makers are optimistic. In his 2011 state of the union address, President Obama announced his goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Nonetheless, the infrastructure for plug-ins is moving ahead.The Department of Energy has issued grants to ECOtotality to set up public charging stations under a program called the EV Project.

Some plug-ins are all-electric and some are hybrids, but one thing they have in common is the need for connection to an electricity source. All EVs come with a cord to charge the vehicle. It is not an accessory, but part of the vehicle itself. To sell a plug-in without a cord would be like selling a car without a gas tank. However, this method of charging can take up to 20 hours for some vehicles. In order to avoid that hassle, the car buyer must separately purchase a “Level 2” charger, to charge the vehicle at a higher voltage (220-240) and therefore reduce the charging time significantly. This Level 2 charger does not come cheap. An EV charger cost anywhere from about $800 - $1,800 and requires installation.

But there is a bright side to this.

Last year, green energy pioneer SolarCity announced that, “Now more Americans than ever will be able to ‘drive on sunshine’, by charging their electric cars with solar power, and save up to 77 percent on fuel costs. SolarCity has partnered with industry pioneer ClipperCreek to provide electric vehicle (EV) chargers compatible with all new EVs.” Installation of the ClipperCreek 240-volt Level II EV charger, including the charger, starts at $1,500. The company claims that powering an EV with electricity generated from a home solar system can be 77 percent less expensive than powering a car with gas.” And that was when gas was still under $4.00 per gallon.

The idea of “driving on sunshine” is bound to appeal to the plug-in market, especially in California.

March 10, 2012

Drive Wide Awake - Arrive Alive

Sleep-deprived driving is more common, and far more hazardous, than you might think. Experts estimate that as many as 15% of deadly crashes involve a drowsy driver. Like the mental state of DUI, anything that causes reduced reaction time, inattention or impaired responsiveness is a red flag. Sometimes it is best just to get home by cab.

The National Sleep Foundation is on a mission to improve this public health hazard. It suggests that any of the following should prompt a driver to pull over:

▪ Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, heavy eyelids
▪ Difficulty keeping reveries or daydreams at bay
▪ Trouble keeping your head up
▪ Drifting, swerving, hitting rumble strips
▪ Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
▪ Missing exits
▪ Yawning repeatedly

These symptoms are what famed Stanford sleep guru, Dr. William Dement, referred to as “Red Alert.” In other words, don't ignore the urge to sleep.

A new smart phone application gives you a great way to measure your sleep quality. For $.99, you can download the incredible iPhone app “Sleep Cycle" from iTunes. You position your phone on the edge of your bed, where it senses the tiniest movement. In the morning you have a detailed, hour-by-hour graph of your descent into deep sleep and spikes of wakefulness. I don't know how accurate it is, because deep sleep is complicated, and perhaps more about brain waves than body movement. But after tossing and turning all night, it might not even be safe to drive to work!

March 7, 2012

How to Decode Your VIN

vin3.jpg The Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, of a car or truck is the fingerprint of that vehicle. No two are alike, and that is why everything from registration to repair orders note this number for tracking. At the time of purchase, you should compare the VIN marked on the vehicle to the registration and title, odometer disclosure forms, and the purchase contract.

But what does it mean? The seventeen alpha-numeric characters that make up the VIN are not random. The VIN encodes the country of origin, the year of manufacture, the specific assembly plant, the make and model, special equipment, and finally a six-digit unique serial number. A given character can be either a number 1-9 or letter A-Z (but no Q, O or I).

The first three characters represent the World Manufacturer’s Identification. The first is the country. For example, 1 and 4 are for the U.S., 3 is Mexico, W is Germany, Z is Italy and J is Japan. The second character is the manufacturer. For example, a letter G is for General Motors. The third character is the vehicle type or manufacturing division - for instance a 6 indicates Cadillac.

The next five characters are the Vehicle Description Section. These characters identify major component parts, such as body style, engine type, brake system, etc.

The ninth character in the sequence is a bit of a cipher. The "VIN Accuracy Check Digit" verifies the entire VIN with a mathematical code, or algorithm, required by the Department of Transportation.

The final “Vehicle Identification Section” is also not random. The first of the sequence (10th character overall) identifies the model year and even though it represents an numerical value (i.e., year) it can be a number or letter code. For example, W is 1998, but 7 is 2007. The millennium year is the letter “Y.” The next character represents the assembly plant.

The final six characters are the actual serial number of the vehicle; it may also indicate whether the vehicle was the first, the hundredth, or the last vehicle off the manufacturer’s assembly line. This last sequence most interests the police in the event the car is stolen. It also contains interesting information for collectors of vintage cars.

The VIN can be useful in handling lemon law cases and product defect class actions. There might have been a flood at a particular factory around the time the subject car was made, or a series of defective components installed for a period of time at a particular assembly plant. The condition of a vehicle may be best inspected by an expert, but the VIN is like having a record of a car's DNA and is one of many tools we use in evaluating any vehicle defect claim.

March 7, 2012

Sacramento Court Grants Preliminary Approval to Class Action Settlement

Class notice goes out this week in a case we filed against Rudolph Incorporated, challenging its post-repossession practices. The defendant will extinguish $1,761,322.31 in outstanding debt for each of the 385 settlement class members. The class is made up of consumers who purchased and financed a motor vehicle pursuant to a contract that was assigned to Rudolph, Inc. or its affiliates; whose vehicle was repossessed; who received a deficiency notice from Rudolph between November 19, 2005 and December 13, 2011. The class excludes about 45 consumers Rudolph sued and obtained a judgment before September 10, 2010, about the time we filed the complaint. Class members who paid some amount of money toward the deficiency will automatically get a full refund for the amount paid.

All class members receive the benefit of full debt relief for the collective amount of $1,761,322.31 in claimed deficiencies, and Rudolph promises to notify the credit reporting agencies that the negative trade line is to be deleted, thereby clearing the class members' credit history of this alleged debt.

Final approval is expected later this spring. Class members should check their credit reports again in August to make sure they have gotten the promised relief. More information will be posted on our website,

March 7, 2012

More Bad News For Nissan

Just as we finished reporting on a fuel sensor defect in certain Infinitis, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office of Defects Investigation now announces two additional recalls.

Campaign number 12VO79 reports a side airbag recall in certain 2003-2005 Infiniti Q45 vehicles. A defect in the wiring connector may cause non-deployment in the event of a crash. Even though these vehicles are otherwise out-of-warranty, Nissan will modify the wiring connector free of charge. Affected owners can expect a notice from Nissan beginning March 12, 2012.

Campaign number 12VO76 draws attention to the 2011-2012 Nissan Quest. Certain vehicle of this make and model, manufactured from July 29, 2010 through February 21, 2012 have a stalling problem due to software programming.

Some manufacturers contend that stalling or sudden deceleration is merely a driveability, or performance, problem. This is not the case. Loss of speed can be a serious safety problem in many situations – heavy traffic, turning left, changing lanes, freeway entry, or normal freeway driving. Nissan and NHTSA are reporting this as a safety recall, scheduled to begin in mid-March 2012. Owners ay contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261 for more information.

March 6, 2012

Are Rental Cars Safe?

Maybe. Maybe not. Even though a pertly uniformed agent has you verify any dings and scratches on the outside of a rental car, you have no way of knowing whether the mechanical operation is sound. They hand you the keys and off you go. Unbeknownst to you, that unfamiliar car could be the subject of a pending safety recall.

The California legislature may be doing something about that soon. With the help of Rosemary Shahan of the consumer watchdog group CARS, Carol Houck is pressing for a change in California law. But, not soon enough. Mrs. Houck lost two beloved daughters in a needless car crash. Raechel Houck was 24 years old, and Jacqueline Houck just 20, when they were killed in a fiery head-on crash in 2004. They had rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser from Enterprise, to drive to see their parents, when the accident occurred southbound on Highway 101. Chrysler had issued a safety recall for a steering system defect, but the car rental company had failed to do the needed repairs.

It is hard to imagine the depth of such parental grief.

Carol Houck and CARS got a sympathetic ear from Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel. He is author of AB753, formally called "The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Rental Car Safety Act." That law would prohibit daily rental car companies from renting cars subject to a safety recall.

Amazing as it may seem, the rental car companies are fighting this new legislation. But don’t tell Carol Houck about over-regulation. Sometimes the common law of negligence is not enough. And a statute on the books can provide clarity as well as deterrence.

Meanwhile, you can arm yourself with information collated by several federal government agencies. This information is also available with a smart phone app. Check it out here.

March 4, 2012

AAA Tips and Tricks to Counter High Gas Prices

Gas prices have hit extreme highs. While the rest of the country is complaining about averages of $4.00, the San Francisco Bay Area is pushing $4.53 for premium at the pump. The idea of paying nearly $100 for a tank of gas was unheard of in the US just a few years ago.

Sticker shock might alter family summer vacation plans, and even encourage carpooling at last, but for the millions of Californians who commute to work and school from the suburbs, there is little choice but to pay the price.

Meanwhile, the Automobile Association of America has a few tips worth passing on. National Vice President Marshall L. Doney relies on U.S. Department of Energy for statisics to support the following advice

1) Properly inflate tires and balance tire inflation - improper inflation lowers gas mileage
2) Go easy on the accelerator - aggressive driving lowers gas mileage up to 33%
3) Go easy on the brake pedal - jerky driving lowers gas mileage
4) Drive the speed limit - Each 5 mph over 60 is equivalent to $.24/gal more for gas
5) Combine errands and simply make fewer trips
6) Carry less - clean out the trunk and roof rack to lighten the load
7) Navigate the most efficient route to your destination

In addition, AAA has a variety of smartphone apps including TripTik and Discounts Finder to help find the best gas prices near your home, school or work. Just be aware that a detour or traffic jam can quickly eat up the cents you might save in the search.

March 1, 2012

Fuel Sensor Defect in 2011-2012 Nissan Infiniti Cars

Nissan North America and NHTSA announced a recall this week of certain 2011-2012 Infiniti passenger cars for a problem in the fuel sensors. The fuel sensor affects the amount of gas that is delivered to the engine. The sensor must be tightened to specifications. In this instance, it appears that the pressure sensors may not have been tightened to spec, and may loosen under the stress of engine heat and vibration. If that happens, fuel could leak, increasing the risk of fire.

If your Nissan is among those vehicles affected, check your mail for notification of repair or replacement of the defective component free of charge. For more information, click here for more information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ID Number 12V069000