Fairfax County officials want a crackdown on what they consider misleading and deceptive advertising by automobile dealers.
The Board of Supervisors has asked the commonwealth attorney's office to see if there are grounds for prosecuting dealers who advertise base model prices when they have no stripped-down cars in stock, or who fail to itemize what an advertised price includes.
"The advertising is clearly wrong," Supervisor James M. Scott (D-Providence) said yesterday. "It's clearly intended to mislead. It's about time somebody said, 'You're breaking the law.' "
Scott said the misleading ads have reached "epidemic proportions," particularly among dealers of Japanese cars.
While county officials maintain that much of the advertising by Fairfax dealers violates state law, Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. says the state law is "very convoluted," and that he is still studying the county's request made two weeks ago.
A bill introduced last month in the Virginia General Assembly calls for repealing the law in question, which requires dealers to itemize the options that are included in an advertised price. Scott said the bill, sponsored by Dels. John G. Dicks III (D-Chesterfield), Ralph L. Axselle Jr. (D-Henrico) and William T. Wilson (D-Covington) would undermine the county's ability to protect consumers.
"I think it's time to immunize the public against this kind of infection," he said. He called the advertising "a very sophisticated bait-and-switch concept" that "violates ethical standards, if not statutes."
W. Raymond Page, president of Bill Page Toyota Inc., a large Northern Virginia dealer, said, "We'd never mislead anyone intentionally."
Ronald B. Mallard, director of the county Department of Consumer Affairs, said the county has drafted letters to all 43 Fairfax and Fairfax City dealers, notifying them of the county's intention to enforce the state law. The letters will be sent out if Horan gives the go-ahead, Mallard said.
Mallard said that notifying dealers before prosecuting them "is the smart and fair way of handling it.
"We won't have to give second chances once we've put them on notice," he said.
Scott called for a regionwide "code of ethics" governing car advertising, and County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert said the county would contact other jurisdictions' chief executives.
"The philosophy in Japan is to answer 'yes' to what people want to hear," said Supervisor Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville). "But for American dealers to adopt this sort of face-saving procedure is certainly not in keeping with American business practices."