No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

You’ve been selling cars to working people with challenged credit for years. Recently, though, the population in the neighborhoods surrounding your dealership has begun to change, with a noticeable increase in Latino families.

 

Now, you’ve begun to hire some of these newcomers—first a clean-up guy and then a young woman who just graduated from the nearby high school to work in your back office.

 

While once it was rare for a Latino customer to pull into your lot, now it happens several times a week. While you’ve welcomed the additional business, the transactions with these buyers can become complicated.

 

Often, these buyers can’t speak English and you have to go through the hassle of requiring that they find someone in the family, or someone they know, who can translate. Sometimes buyers who leave, promising to return with translators, don’t return, and you could really use those lost sales. When they do return with translators, you worry that what your dealership’s people are saying is being translated correctly.

 

Then one day the light bulb flashes on. Why not ask the young woman in the back office to do the translating? That way, you won’t have to send buyers away and you’ll be reasonably sure that the transaction will be explained correctly to the buyer. “Gee,” you say, “why didn’t I think of that sooner?”

 

So now, with your own in-house translator, you have signs made to display prominently in front of your lot. In Spanish, they announce that Spanish is spoken at the dealership. You notice that your drive-up Spanish business picks up noticeably and that your Latino customers seem more comfortable in their discussions with dealership personnel. You give the young woman translator a nice raise, and everybody’s happy.

 

Everybody, that is, except the Federal Trade Commission.

 

“But what,” you ask, “can the FTC have its shorts in a twist about?”

 

Here’s the problem. By fixing one problem, you’ve created another, without knowing you were doing so.

 

The FTC’s Used Car Rule has long required that each used car offered for sale have a “Buyers Guide,” commonly called a “window sticker,” displayed prominently and conspicuously in or on the vehicle. “I’ve been doing that for years,” you say. “What’s the deal?”

 

The issue arises because there’s a bit more to the rule—a bit that hasn’t applied to you until you made your recent changes. The Rule also requires that if the dealer negotiates in Spanish, the dealer has to do two additional things. First, the dealer has to include the Spanish language version of the Buyers Guide along with the English-language version. Second, the dealer is required to include in the contract of sale a specific warning, in Spanish.

 

If you are using forms prepared by knowledgeable and reputable folks, the Spanish-language disclosure has probably been included just to be on the safe side. Only you, though, can take care of installing those Spanish-language Buyers Guides in all your cars. If you haven’t done so, and the FTC comes calling, its investigators can nail you for thousands of dollars per car in fines.

 

State law also may require Spanish or other foreign language disclosures if you are negotiating with customers in Spanish or consider it an unfair or deceptive practice to translate only some of the documents in Spanish, but not all them. State regulators, the state AG, and plaintiff’s attorneys enforce those types of provisions. Chances are you’ll see one of those guys before you see the FTC, and they’re just as much fun.

 

So, if you’re negotiating in Spanish or some other language that is not English, consider what foreign language disclosures or other requirements might apply to you. If you don’t, you might still get the business and your customers might be happy, but you might be breaking one or two laws in the meantime.

 

Sometimes you can’t win for losing.

 

Nicole Munro is a partner in the Maryland office of Hudson Cook, LLP. Ms. Munro represents DMS providers, forms printing companies, motor vehicle dealers, sales finance companies, and lenders engaged in motor vehicle finance transactions. She can be reached at 410-865-5430 or by email at nmunro@hudco.com.

 

 

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