Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is Your Website Provider Watching Your Back?

As I read through dealer websites, I’m often surprised at how many advertising violations I find. You would think that website providers would make sure that this doesn’t occur, right?

You should never assume that the company that creates and maintains your website follows all the laws and regulations governing advertising compliance. State advertising laws vary and the responsibility for compliance lies with the dealership, not the vendor. Here are some examples of what I’ve run into and issues to look for:

• Disclaimers - Website providers sometimes include boilerplate factory disclaimers on inventory pages that identify vehicles by a specific VIN and price, such as:

o “Advertised vehicles are subject to actual dealer availability. Certain vehicles listed may not be available, or may have different prices.”

o “Pricing and availability varies by dealership.”

o “Prices do not include dealer charges, such as advertising, that can vary by manufacturer or region, or costs for selling, preparing, displaying or financing the vehicle.”

o “Images displayed may not be representative of the actual trim level of the vehicle.”

o “Information provided is believed to be accurate but all specifications, pricing and availability must be confirmed in writing (directly) with the dealer to be binding.”

While these types of disclaimers may be appropriate when advertising a model line, they probably shouldn’t be associated with specific vehicles. Advertised vehicles that are identified by VIN are subject to prior sale, but they certainly should not be subject to “different prices”. You should also determine which charges are allowed to be excluded from an advertised price in your state.

• Check to determine if all necessary disclosures are present on your site. For example, “advertised prices exclude tax, government fees, etc.” Again, do not assume that your website provider is utilizing language that is acceptable in your particular state or including all of the required disclosures.

• Be sure that all disclaimers are clearly and conspicuously displayed and not buried away in a difficult-to-find link elsewhere on the site.

• If payments, downpayments or interest rates are advertised, make sure that all of the proper Truth in Lending and state disclosures are included.

• Ensure that lease programs are properly disclosed. Many factory national lease programs contain generic information that may not be sufficient or appropriate in your state.

• Some states require that vehicle history, such as prior rental or demonstrator, is disclosed on vehicle advertisements. Does your website provide a way to include these disclosures?

• Ensure that vehicles are promptly removed from the website after they have been sold. Some sites are linked to the dealer’s DMS and will remove sold units automatically, while others require vehicles to be removed manually. Sold units should always be removed promptly to avoid potential bait and switch advertising claims.

It’s never a bad idea to have your website thoroughly reviewed by a compliance professional. Remember, advertising violations can be easy for regulators to spot and difficult to defend against.