What is it with car dealers? They're forever whining that they're misunderstood. Yet the evidence continues to cascade. They bend the truth, they sweet-talk, they overpromise, all to get that signature on that dotted line. And if their sales pitches later cause big problems for their customers? Hey, too bad, pal.

The latest customer to discover that a car dealer seriously misled him is Tom Grein of Herndon. Tom was disabled by polio in 1953. He gets around with a pair of canes. He can drive a car, but he uses handicapped license plates so the walk from a parking space to a door is as short as possible.

Last spring, Tom decided to lease a new car instead of buying one. He went to a dealership at Tysons Corner. The ooze started the minute he walked in.

Oh, yes, sir, oh, you bet, sir, we have just the vehicle that's right for you, sir. Tom picked out a model, tested it and liked it. But he had a question: Could he transfer his handicapped plates from his old car to the new, leased one?

Oh, sure, sir, no problem, sir, we do it every day, sir. Trustingly, Tom signed the lease form.

When he returned to pick up the new car the next day, a set of 30-day cardboard temporary tags had been affixed to it. Tom asked why his handicapped plates hadn't been transferred to the leased car, as he had requested.

Gee, sir, we were slightly mistaken, sir. What you have to do, sir, is turn the old handicapped tags in to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and you'll receive new ones quick as a wink, sir.

Not true, as Tom soon discovered.

In Virginia, a driver cannot obtain handicapped plates for a leased car under any circumstances. The state will give a handicapped driver a hanging, portable sign that attaches to the rear-view mirror. But the state's official position is that the car belongs to the leasing company, and because the company isn't handicapped, the leased car doesn't rate handicapped plates. Doesn't matter if the sole driver of the car is handicapped. Doesn't matter that the policy makes absolutely no sense.

What's wrong with the hanging handicapped sign? Usually nothing. However, Tom says he has used one in the past and found nasty notes under his windshield wiper from fellow motorists. The hanging sign is nowhere near as persuasive to the general public as a handicapped plate, Tom says.

Tom says he'd never have leased a car if he'd known he'd be ineligible for handicapped plates. The sales manager "clearly told me what I wanted to hear so he could lease me the car," Tom says.

I called the sales manager for comment, and couldn't reach him. I did talk to another sales official at the dealership. He refused to give me his name except to say that he had been "authorized to speak to the press."

The sales official said Tom Grein must have misunderstood. I asked if the sales manager might not have stretched the truth -- or mangled it -- in order to clinch a deal. The sales official said no one at that dealership would ever do such a thing deliberately. But the manager did provide false information, I pointed out. Surely an experienced salesman knew the Virginia law. "Well, I'm sure he meant no harm," said the sales official.

There you have it, sports fans. The dealership never misleads a customer, except when it does. And if no harm was meant, none was done.

If your code of ethics were that rubbery, they'd rename you Snow Tire.

Moral of the story: Check out whatever a car dealer tells you before signing anything. It's your best protection against "misunderstood" car dealers.

Postscript: The law governing handicapped tags on leased cars is much saner in the District and Maryland.

In the District, a leasing company or a car dealership routinely applies to the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services for a form. Once it's filled out, handicapped plates can be transferred, or a new set is assigned through the company or dealership on behalf of customers like Tom Grein. Anita Smith in the D.C. Motor Services' Medical Review Office says the process is "routine."

In Maryland, handicapped tags cannot be transferred. However, a handicapped motorist can obtain a new set for a leased car with a power of attorney signed by the leasing company or dealership. "There's never any problem," says Lisa Smith of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

Memo to the Old Dominion: There'd be no problem for you, either, if you'd just change your law. Tom Grein would love to see it. So would many more handicapped Virginia car-leasers in the same boat.

Best T-shirt of the summer so far, spotted aboard a man at Luray Caverns:

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA GRADUATE SCHOOL

IT'S NOT JUST A JOB

IT'S AN INDENTURE