Md. Car Dealers Settle Deceptive Ad Claims
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
When James Hobson of Ellicott City tried to buy a car last year for his college-bound daughter, he learned a hard lesson in reading the fine print.
It began when he saw a newspaper ad for a new 2007 Ford Mustang on sale for just under $13,000. He called the dealership, Castle Ford in Silver Spring, to make sure that they had Mustangs at the sale price. He was told that they did. At the car lot, a salesperson said nothing to dissuade him. After the test drive, Hobson sat down to negotiate and was told that the real cost would be closer to the manufacturer's suggested retail price of about $20,000.
When Hobson asked why, he was shown the newspaper ad -- the tiny print at the bottom that said he had to pay $3,000 in cash or trade in a vehicle for that amount, on top of taxes and title fees, to buy the Mustang at the "sale price."
Hobson refused and called his daughter to say that he wouldn't be able to buy the car he'd promised as her reward for obtaining a full scholarship. She began to cry.
"It was so deceptive," he said.
Yesterday, Castle Ford was one of five local dealerships that agreed to stop using misleading prices and prize offers in advertisements in a settlement with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection. Castle Ford president Howard Castleman did not return messages.
The other dealers in the settlement are Sport Chevrolet in Silver Spring and its advertising agency, Laurel-based Kell Communications; Ourisman Rockmont Chevrolet in Rockville; Ourisman Wheaton Plaza Chevrolet in Wheaton; and Victory Nissan in Gaithersburg, which has since been bought by Criswell Automotive.
In signing the agreement, the dealerships and Kell did not admit to any wrongdoing. Robert Fogerty, owner of Sport Chevrolet, bristled at the allegations.
He said the February 2008 ad that consumer officials singled out disclosed the cash or trade allowance but not on the proper line. "We made a mistake and it was totally unintentional," he said. "We never did it before and we never did it since."
The mailers and the ads, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post over the past year, according to the consumer protection office, were designed to lure consumers to car showrooms. Ann L. McDaniel, a spokeswoman for The Post, said the company had not yet seen the settlement and would not comment.
Judy Berman, senior vice president for marketing at Baltimore Sun Media Group, also declined to comment, saying the company had not seen the settlement.
"It's a slow economy," said Eric Friedman, the county's consumer protection director, "but we say a slow economy is not a license to run misleading advertisements."