Two St. Louis car dealerships will pay a $40,000 civil penalty for alleged violations of a Federal Trade Commission order related to the Consumer Leasing Act ("CLA") and the Truth In Lending Act ("TILA"). The penalty is the first ever collected by the FTC for such an order violation by a vehicle dealership or individual dealership officer. Under the consent decree, Thomas Suntrup, Suntrup Buick-Pontiac-GMC, and Suntrup Ford, Inc. (collectively, "Suntrup") will pay the penalty to resolve allegations that they did not conform their advertising practices to the CLA and the TILA, despite agreeing to do so in a 1998 consent order with the Commission.
"When consumers are shopping for cars, they ought to have confidence in the information they're getting from ads," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "By helping to ensure that the all-important 'fine' print is readable, this action puts consumers in the driver's seat when they're negotiating their deal."
According to the Commission's complaint, following the issuance of the original order, Suntrup's vehicle leasing ads stated the amount of any payment or that any or no initial payment was required at lease inception, but failed to disclose "clearly and conspicuously" required financial information, including the total amount due prior to or at lease inception. Instead, the ads buried this information in type that was too small, that appeared on the screen for too short a time, or that was accompanied by distracting sounds or images. In addition, the complaint alleges that the ads did not disclose whether or not a security deposit was required.
Further, the complaint alleges that Suntrup's consumer credit advertising failed to provide consumers with disclosures required by the 1998 order. For example, one advertisement offered consumer financing for just "$1 down" without disclosing the terms of repayment or the annual percentage rate of the financing.
Under the consent decree, Suntrup, while not admitting any violations, would pay a civil penalty of $40,000 and would be required for two years to make the brochure Keys to Vehicle Leasing available to consumers who visit the dealerships. This brochure, developed by the Federal Reserve Board, FTC staff, industry representatives, and consumer groups, explains, in simple terms, the costs of vehicle leasing and the mechanics of a lease transaction.
CONSUMER EDUCATION INFORMATION ON VEHICLE LEASING
With the announcement of the action in this matter, the FTC also reminds consumers of its educational material available on the subject of vehicle leasing, all of which is available on its website at www.ftc.gov or by calling the Consumer Response Center at 1-877-FTC-HELP. This material includes the Consumer Alert "Look Before You Lease," that contains detailed information on the difference between leasing and buying a vehicle, factors to consider when deciding whether leasing is the right option for you, and tips to follow during the leasing process. Among these tips are:
- Shop as if you are buying a vehicle. Negotiate all the lease terms, including the price of the vehicle. Lowering the lease price will help reduce your monthly payments. In addition, get all the terms in writing;
- Learn the language of leasing. The Alert contains the definitions of a wide range of terms, including: open- and closed-end lease, lease inception fee, capitalized cost, and capitalized cost reduction;
- Ask whether extra charges will be assessed for excessive mileage, wear and tear, disposition, or early lease termination, and find out the amount of these charges. Check out penalties for an early return, and expect to pay a substantial charge if you give up the vehicle before the end of your lease;
- Make sure the manufacturer's warranty covers the entire lease term and the number of miles you are likely to drive;
- Consider "gap insurance" to cover the difference between what you owe on the lease and what the car is worth if it is stolen or totaled in an accident; and
- Before you sign the deal, take a copy of the contract home and review it carefully - away from any dealer pressure. Be alert for any charges that were not disclosed at the dealership, such as conveyance, disposition and preparation fees.
In addition, the Alert contains a worksheet on Consumer Leasing Act disclosures to help consumers understand what their total costs are likely to be with regard to a particular lease arrangement. It also reminds consumers that federal law requires lessors to provide lease cost information before the lease is signed.
The Commission vote to approve the complaint seeking civil penalties and the settlement was 4-0. The complaint and consent decree were filed this morning in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, in St. Louis, by the Department of Justice.
NOTE: This consent decree is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Consent decrees have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the news release and legal documents related to this matter are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
(Civil Action No.: 4:99CV01746cej)
(FTC Matter No. C-3779)
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