Auto warranty firms rack up complaints - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Auto warranty firms rack up complaints

Federal regulators tighten rules on telemarketers

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Posted: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:36 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

The phone calls can be incessant - a recorded message warning that your car's warranty might expire.

What they want to sell is an extended service package for your car, sometimes called an extended warranty. It's like an insurance policy that covers auto maintenance.

Some of the larger extended service-plan dealers even advertise on television and have snared some big-name sponsorships in the auto racing industry.

"I saw their advertisement on TV," said Richard Caroppoli, a recently retired Tucsonan.

He thought buying additional coverage for his aging 2000 Chevy Cavalier and 2005 Pontiac Grand Am would save some money if one of the cars' transmissions died, or he needed other major repairs.

The third-party auto service industry also has attracted some attention they probably would rather have avoided - state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Numerous lawsuits have targeted the industry, alleging that some companies used deceptive sales tactics, flouted the national Do Not Call Registry and co-opted car manufacturers' logos for financial gain.

One of the biggest names in extended service contracts is US Fidelis, a Missouri-based company.

Caroppoli called them after he saw their advertisement on TV.

"I got this person on the phone and he was rattling on so fast," Caroppoli said. "He wouldn't answer my questions."

Eventually, Caroppoli said another representative took over the call and explained some of the policy details. Despite the initial confusion, Caroppoli said the policy sounded like a good deal.

"I'm on a fixed income and thought it would be good to have," he said.

When Caroppoli told the salesman he was interested and requested they send him the contract details for review, the salesman refused. He would have to put a down payment on the contract if he wanted to learn more.

Before the call ended, Caroppoli paid $300 to get US Fidelis to send him a contract. They told him he had 30 days to decide if he wanted to sign the contract.

When the contract came in mail, Caroppoli and his wife read the details. What they saw shocked them.

The contract outlined an extensive list of exemptions and stipulations about where they could take their cars for service. Most repairs would need prior approval from a company representative. In other cases, labor costs would not be covered.

The company also expected Carropoli to have any replaced parts sent to US Fidelis after the repairs were completed.

"What if the transmission went bad - how could I send them a transmission?" Carropoli said.

In addition, the annual cost to cover both cars left Caroppoli and his wife stunned: more than $3,000.

Strict prohibitions like the ones Caroppoli found in his contract appear to be commonplace among third-party auto service companies.

A sample coverage plan from the US Fidelis Web site - Platinum Plan Extended Auto Warranty Coverage - lists 13 categories of exemptions. The plan exempts numerous electric components, breakdowns resulting from collisions or road conditions, fire, theft, vandalism, riots, explosions, weather, floods, salt damage, environmental damage, chemical contaminants, earthquakes, freezing, rust and corrosion.

"When they get the paperwork, a very limited range of things are covered," said Kim States, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona.

Consumer advocate groups hear often from disaffected customers about third-party service plans. In the past two months, BBBs across the country have fielded nearly 23,500 complaints, inquiries and questions about auto-service contract companies, making the contractors one of the most complaint-laden industries in BBB databases.

Complaints against the companies range from difficulty in canceling policies, problems getting promised refunds, misleading advertisements, high-pressure sales tactics, failure to pay for repairs and refusal to remove people from call lists.

US Fidelis - which also does business under the names National Auto Warranty Services, NAWS and Dealer Services - alone has 890 customer complaints against it on file with the BBB.

Some car dealerships also have experienced difficulties with third-party service companies.

"We definitely have had problems getting paid from some of the third-party warranty companies," said Greg Stewart, service manager with Precision Toyota.

Stewart said some of the companies pay only after the work is completed. In the past he agreed to the companies' terms, even when they've offered to pay by check. The results were disastrous.

"In quite a few cases, we haven't gotten paid and had to write off thousands of dollars," Stewart said.

Precision won't honor third-party contracts any longer unless the company pays up front with a credit card, Stewart said.

Service warranty companies have caused issues for Stewart in other ways, too.

Angry car owners were calling the dealership, demanding to know how telemarketers knew they had recently bought a car and why their warranty was about to expire.

"We were getting calls every day," Stewart said.

Many consumers have complained to federal regulators about the phone calls from the service companies even when their phone numbers appear on the national Do Not Call Registry.

"It's one of the most obnoxious and deceptive marketing campaigns that we've seen," States from the BBB said.

In some cases, the calls cross the line from bothersome to criminal.

"I can tell you they are violating the law," said Craig Tregillus, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.

Companies run afoul of the law not only for ignoring the do not call lists, but for using pre-recorded messages, the type used by many of the auto-service contract companies.

New federal regulations put restrictions on the use of pre-recorded phone messages. Companies have to include opt-out features at the beginning of automated sales calls. Forthcoming regulations will make using pre-recorded sales pitches even more prohibitive. By September, companies can't use automated message systems at all unless consumers give express written consent.

The FTC has taken action against numerous companies since the "do not call" list was enacted in 2003. In recent years, the FTC has issued nearly $27 million in fines to companies that violated the registry and other consumer protections against telemarketing, according to FTC documents.

Some auto-service contract companies have faced numerous civil lawsuits in recent years as well. US Fidelis confronts at least six pending suits in federal courts.

In one, auto manufacturer Subaru accused the company of trademark infringement and false advertising for using the manufacturer's name and a likeness of its cars in mailers warning car owners that their warranties had expired.

In March 2008, the Missouri Attorney General took legal action against several auto-service contract firms, including National Auto Warranty Services Inc., a company under the US Fidelis umbrella.

The Explorer tried to contact US Fidelis to discuss some of the issues the industry faces. After 8-1/2 minutes on hold, a company representative answered.

When told the nature of the call, the representative put the newspaper on hold again. After another six minutes on hold, a second person answered and promptly hung up the phone.

Not all the service contract companies employ the tactics that have prompted consumer complaints and lawsuits.

Industry representative Larry Hecker, with the Automotive Warranty and Service Contract Association, said his group has worked with numerous state attorneys general to weed out the bad actors.

The group has worked to codify a set of industry best practices and a certification process.

So far, Hecker said 60 companies have signed on with the organization.

"It's difficult to be a consumer," Hecker said. "At this point, I can't recommend one company over another."

He said once the organization makes a complete list of compliant companies, they would be posted to the association's Web site for consumers.

A review of companies operating in Arizona found the majority has good records with the BBB. Of 23 companies found, 13 have A and B ratings, three have C grade and three were given failing marks. Another four companies have no rating with the BBB.

After Caroppoli decided the contract US Fidelis offered him wasn't the deal he had hoped for, he tried to contact the company to cancel the agreement.

"They kept hanging up on me," Caroppoli said.

After nearly three hours of phone calls, Caroppoli said he finally spoke with a representative, but the company was unwilling to allow him to cancel. The BBB was able to help. "The reason we got our money back," Caroppoli said, "was because the BBB called them."

Who's scamming you?

While many telemarketers sell legitimate products and services, the Better Business Bureau said consumers should take precautions when dealing with unsolicited salespeople over the telephone.

"If you don't initiate contact, you should use extreme caution," said Kim States, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona.

States also said consumers should request that contract details be sent to them before agreeing to pay. If a company doesn't want to show you the contract, hang up the phone.

The BBB also warns against providing credit card and other personal information to unknown sources over the telephone.

Also, federal regulations require telemarketers to maintain internal do-not-call lists, in addition to honoring the national Do Not Call Registry.

As of December 2008, telemarketers must include opt-out functions at the beginning of pre-recorded sales messages. If a telemarketer does not offer the option, consumers should be wary.

After September 2009, telemarketers can't use any prerecorded phone messages to sell products and services unless a consumer has agreed in writing to receive the calls.

New rules also require telemarketers phone numbers' to be accurately displayed on caller identification devices. The rules ban companies from "spoofing" or misrepresenting caller ID information.

For more information on consumer protection, visit the Federal Trade Commission Web site at www.ftc.gov or the Better Business Bureau at http://tucson.bbb.org/.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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