BALTIMORE -- Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., voicing concern about a wide range of consumer complaints, has written to the state's 425 licensed new-car dealers, urging them to comply with laws against deceptive and misleading advertising.
The five-page letter, sent Sept. 25, details a variety of prohibited practices by some dealers, from false no-money-down claims to traditional bait-and-switch tactics to lure people into showrooms.
"The purpose of this letter . . . is to share with you my concerns and my intention to work with you to ensure compliance with the law," Curran wrote.
Among the practices that Curran singled out were advertisements that suggest a direct link between the dealership and the factory when no such relationship exists, false claims that cars have been purchased at a discount from the manufacturer and misleading information on trade-in guarantees.
William Leibovici, an assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division, said the letter was not triggered by any surge in consumer complaints but resulted from a continuing review of complaints in the past 18 months.
He estimated that the attorney general's office and the state's Motor Vehicle Administration, both of which have enforcement authority over automobile advertising, receive 300 to 400 complaints a year.
Leibovici said complaints are usually resolved through state conciliation or arbitration procedures.
Dealership representatives said they welcomed Curran's letter.
"We're supportive of fair advertising," said Jerry Murphy, director of the Automotive Trade Association for the National Capital Area.
"It's good to remind the merchants what the rules of the game are."
Murphy said his organization plans a seminar on advertising do's and don'ts in November for area dealers.
Joseph Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, said the Curran letter resulted in part from talks on advertising guidelines between his organization and the attorney general's office for more than a year.
The association created an advertising committee, which drafted a dozen guidelines for dealers, he said.
The guidelines were relayed to Curran and his predecessor, Stephen H. Sachs, for study.
Curran's letter last week was based at least in part on the guidelines and reflects the "common objectives of automotive advertising . . . . We think we're all headed in the right direction," Carroll said.
Curran, who has been generally less confrontational than Sachs and campaigned for the attorney general's post last year on a platform that emphasized negotiating with potential business violators before taking them to court, said in his letter, "I want to work with you."
He added, "Compliance with the law is consistent with running a successful business, as the vast majority of dealers know."
Curran also said he is organizing a New and Used Automobile Dealers Round Table "to advise me of industry concerns so we can identify problems before they become crises and seek solutions through educational programs."
"Such educational efforts, together with evenhanded enforcement of the law, will allow all dealers to compete on a level playing field and enable consumers to rely safely on what they are told in automobile advertising."