March 14, 2012 -- Five car dealers around the country have agreed to Federal Trade Commission settlement orders that require them to stop running ads in which they promise to pay off a consumer's trade-in no matter what the consumer owes on the vehicle.
Example of dealer advertisement with offer to pay off trade-in. Image of car with text "The great billion payoff! We will pay off your trade no matter how much you owe!"The FTC charged that the ads, which ran on the dealers' websites and on sites such as YouTube.com, deceived consumers into thinking they would no longer be responsible for paying off the loan balance on their trade-in, even if it exceeded the trade-in's value (i.e., the trade-in had "negative equity"). Instead, the dealers rolled the negative equity into the consumer's new vehicle loan or, in the case of one dealer, required consumers to pay it out of pocket.
The proposed settlements, reached as part of the FTC's ongoing efforts to protect consumers in financial distress, bar all of the dealers from making similar deceptive representations in the future. The cases are the first of their kind brought by the FTC. The Commission also issued a new consumer education publication titled "Negative Equity Ads and Auto-Trade-ins" to help consumers understand these types of ads.
"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," said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The Federal Trade Commission is constantly on the lookout for potentially deceptive ads, and brings actions to stop them when appropriate."
The dealers named in the FTC's complaints are: 1) Billion Auto, Inc., in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; 2) Frank Myers AutoMaxx, LLC, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 3) Key Hyundai of Manchester, LLC and Hyundai of Milford LLC, in Vernon and Milford, Connecticut, respectively, and which advertise jointly; 4) and Ramey Motors, Inc., in Princeton, West Virginia.
The FTC's complaints allege that despite the dealers' claims, consumers still end up being responsible for paying the difference between the trade-in loan balance and the vehicle's value. The complaints charge that the dealers' representations that they will "pay off" what the consumers owe are false and misleading, and violate the FTC Act. Examples of the allegedly deceptive advertisements include:
"Credit upside down? Need a new car? Go to Billionpayoff.com. We want to pay off your car." The advertisement depicts a car moving, inverts the video to depict it upside down, and then turns it right-side up again. (Billion Auto)
"Uncle Frank wants to pay [your trade] off in full, no matter how much you owe." (Frank Myers AutoMaxx)
"I want your trade no matter how much you owe or what you're driving. In fact I'll pay off your trade when you upgrade to a nicer, newer vehicle." (Key Hyundai and Hyundai of Milford)
"Ramey will pay off your trade no matter what you owe . . . even if you're upside down, Ramey will pay off your trade." (Ramey Motors)
In addition, the complaints in three of the cases allege violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and its implementing Regulation Z for failing to disclose certain credit-related terms, and the complaints in two of the cases allege violations of the Consumer Leasing Act (CLA) and its implementing Regulation M for failing to disclose certain lease related terms.
The proposed orders settling the FTC's charges against the dealers are designed to prevent them from engaging in similar deceptive advertising practices in the future. First, each order prohibits the dealer from misrepresenting that it will pay the remaining loan balance on a consumer's trade-in, so the consumer will have no further obligation for any amount of that loan. It also prohibits the dealer from misrepresenting any other facts related to leasing or financing a vehicle.
The proposed orders against Billion Auto, Key Hyundai, Hyundai of Milford, and Ramey Motors require these dealers to comply with TILA and Regulation Z, and to make clear and conspicuous disclosures when advertising certain terms related to issuing consumer credit. It also requires that if any finance charge is advertised, the rate must be stated as an "annual percentage rate" or as the "APR." In addition, the proposed orders against Billion Auto, Key Hyundai, and Hyundai of Milford require these dealers to clearly and conspicuously make all lease related disclosures required by the CLA and Regulation M, including the monthly lease payment.
The proposed orders also require each of the dealers to keep copies of relevant advertisements and materials substantiating claims made in their advertisements, and to provide copies of the order to certain employees. Finally, the dealers are required to file compliance reports with the FTC to show they are meeting the terms of the orders, which will expire in 20 years.
The misrepresentation alleged in these cases was one of the topics raised at the FTC's 2011 public roundtables regarding consumer protection issues that may arise in the sale, financing or lease of motor vehicles. For many consumers, buying or leasing a car is their most expensive financial transaction aside from owning a home. As the nation's consumer protection agency, the Commission is committed to protecting consumers in connection with these financial transactions.
The Commission vote to issue the administrative complaints and accept the consent agreement packages containing the proposed consent orders for public comment was 4-0. The FTC will publish a description of the consent agreement packages in the Federal Register shortly. The agreements will be subject to public comment for 30 days, beginning today and continuing through April 16, 2012, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent orders final.
The FTC acknowledges the valuable assistance of the Iowa Attorney General's Office in the investigation of this matter.
Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form by following the instructions in the "Invitation To Comment" part of the "Supplementary Information" section. Comments in electronic form should be submitted using the following web links and following the instructions on the web-based form:
Comments in paper form should be mailed or delivered to: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-113 (Annex D), 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580. The FTC is requesting that any comment filed in paper form near the end of the public comment period be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible, because U.S. postal mail in the Washington area and at the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security precautions.
NOTE: The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has "reason to believe" that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the respondent has actually violated the law. A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the respondent that the law has been violated. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC's online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC's website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.