Montgomery County consumer officials have accused two Silver Spring car dealers of using "deceptive and unconscionable" sales schemes in which new car buyers allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for basic items that were misrepresented as "dealer-installed accessories."
In a lawsuit filed Thursday, one of the dealerships, Metro Ford, also was accused of selling the same car three times, representing it as new after it had been returned by previous owners. The other dealership, Astro Chevrolet, was accused of selling a car twice.
The owner of both dealerships, Dennis Spencer of Bethesda, was included as a defendant in the lawsuit, which also described several instances of allegedly deceptive advertising.
The lawsuit was filed by the county Office of Consumer Affairs after what officials said was a year's investigation of numerous customer complaints.
Spencer's attorney, Basil Mezines, denied any wrongdoing by his client and called the allegations "outrageous" and "absolutely false." Spencer was out of the state yesterday and could not be reached.
The dealerships sold about 2,000 new cars in the last year, according to George Rose of the consumer office's car unit. In an interview, he alleged that about half the customers were charged $215 extra each for body-side molding, a standard item already included in the car's base price.
Body-side molding is a thin strip of rubber along the sides of a car that helps protect against dents. Rose alleged that the dealerships gained about $215,000 in the last year by improperly charging customers for the molding.
In an undetermined number of cases, Rose said, buyers also were double-billed for items such as rustproofing, carpeted floor mats and antitheft wheel locks, although those features were actually standard and already included in the base prices of the cars they were buying.
"As a result of these misrepresentations," the lawsuit said, "defendants were able to, and did, charge consumers twice for the same items."
As the case progresses, Rose said, the consumer office will seek to examine Spencer's business records to determine how much the dealerships allegedly gained from buyers who paid extra amounts for other standard items.
Only then, he said, will the office determine exactly how much money to seek from the dealerships on behalf of consumers.
As for selling the same car more than once, the lawsuit alleged that the dealerships "misrepresented to consumers that the mileage on the odometers of these vehicles was the result of test drives or was due to the vehicle having been used as a demonstrator."
In one instance, Rose said, Metro sold a new car to a customer who drove it 1,200 miles before the dealership learned that the buyer's financing was inadequate. The car was returned, Rose alleged, then sold as new to another buyer, who drove it an additional 300 miles before learning from paper work in the glove compartment that the car had been owned previously.
The buyer returned the car, Rose said, and Metro sold it again, telling the buyer that it was new.