Ethics Alert Series

ETHICS ALERT: Fake Warranties and Marketing Offers Cloaked as Unpaid Invoices

By Senny Boone

Background:

We have all seen these — or heard them on robocalls — an urgent message that your car warranty is about to EXPIRE NOW or that you immediately owe a PAST DUE invoice that you must pay or owe even more money. Some are even solicitations masked as a legitimate government notice.

Our ANA Consumer Affairs department fields many inquiries about such deceptive and abusive sales tactics from the public and we have seen an increase in fake car warranty offers necessitating this update. Do not fall victim or aid or foster these types of tactics.

The extended car warranty offer example has been a significant problem for many years, and harms not only consumers, but also legitimate car warranty providers. We have heard from consumers who have received random calls or "pink slip invoices" from companies claiming to be from "dealer services" and offering extended warranties on their cars.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed suit in February of 2022 against American Vehicle Protection Corp. of Florida (AVP) and several affiliated people and companies for allegedly deceptive telemarketing practices. Operators working for the companies allegedly called people and told them they were working with automakers such as Toyota and Ford that produced the cars people owned, according to the complaint. In fact, the complaint alleges the defendants had no relationship with the car manufacturers.

"AVP blasted consumers with illegal calls and made bogus claims about bumper-to-bumper warranties," Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "The truth is that the warranties didn't come from the manufacturer, didn't cover the repairs people needed, and weren't sold legally." Operators offered "bumper-to-bumper" or "full coverage" auto warranties that were filled with exceptions for various parts, according to the FTC. Sales people even told consumers that specific parts were covered that were specifically excluded. The warranties were sold with the promise the policies could be canceled and money refunded within 30 days, the FTC said. When customers tried to cancel the policies, calls to the company often went unanswered and money was not returned until pressure was applied by regulatory agencies or the Better Business Bureau, according to the complaint.

Prices for the policies ranged from $2,800 to $3,400. The alleged scams gained over $6 million from consumers since 2018, according to the complaint.

Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that car warranty robocalls were the top unwanted call complaint filed by consumers with the FCC for two years, running.

Recent Consumer Scam Examples:

Like the FTC and FCC, the ANA has also seen an uptick in complaints from consumers reporting deceptive extended car warranty offers:

  • A fake auto warranty flyer sent to a recent car buyer that indicates their automobile's extended warranty has expired and that the car owner must pay the company for a new warranty agreement to prevent harm to their vehicle.
  • A fake government invoice using an "official" government seal that tells the consumer their government benefits are in jeopardy unless they pay the sender a fee.
  • A robocall asking the individual to call to renew government benefits at a fake call back number or even threatening legal action by the federal government for allegedly owed back taxes.
  • Home appliances warranties that are marketed on yellow or pink paper that make it appear to be an invoice without any disclosures that the offer is actually a solicitation.

Guidance & Principles:

"Legitimate advertisers should always strive to treat consumers fairly and with respect and to use ethical advertising practices," says Jordan Abbott, Chairman of the ANA Ethics Review Committee. Using urgency in a marketing appeal is not inherently unethical and can be a reasonable marketing method so long as you are not purposefully deceiving a consumer. Marketing appeals that indicate a deadline or a time-sensitive offer can be helpful to consumers when they are about to make a purchase and are seeking the best price and the deadline is a true deadline for the offer. However, it is not acceptable to claim to be an official, authorized warranty provider, dealer, government agency or pretend to have an otherwise official role, or falsely give the appearance of an invoice when it is a promotional offer. Using this type of fake authority appeal can be harmful and deceptive to consumers and it is illegal. For example, you cannot use this tactic for the Social Security Administration and social security benefits.

ANA offers marketing principles and guidelines to assist marketers in applying a common sense set of standards regarding these kinds of offers. Please review the following ANA guidelines:

ARTICLE 1. HONESTY AND CLARITY OF OFFER

All offers should be clear, honest, and complete so that the consumer may know the exact nature of what is being offered, the price, the terms of payment (including all extra charges) and the commitment involved in the placing of an order. Before publication of an offer, marketers should be prepared to substantiate any claims or offers made. Advertisements or specific claims that are untrue, misleading, deceptive, or fraudulent should not be used.

ARTICLE 10. SOLICITATION IN THE GUISE OF AN INVOICE OR GOVERNMENTAL NOTIFICATION

Offers that are likely to be mistaken for bills, invoices, or notices from public utilities or governmental agencies should not be used.

Additional Resources:

ANA Center for Ethical Marketing mediates consumer inquiries. If a company or a consumer believes a marketing promotion or practice is questionable and may warrant a formal review by the ANA Ethics Review Committee which receives and investigates consumer complaints, consumers and companies may file a complaint.

You may view our current and past reports for listings of companies that the Committee has found to be out-of-compliance. Our first step in the process is to reach out to companies with the complainant's concerns and request an investigation and response. The Committee's leading role is to bring awareness and education regarding industry standard practices. It is our experience that most companies resolve the matter fairly quickly. The Committee will only publicize its findings if the company has either responded that it will not come into compliance with industry standards or does not respond at all to repeated attempts to resolve the issue.

Other places to file a complaint:

If you are interested in knowledge-sharing and connecting with other ANA members about this issue and marketing and ethics, there are different opportunities to get involved:

  • ANA Ethics Review Committee: This committee reviews and recommends actions on marketing and ethics complaints and educates companies and consumers.
  • ANA Ethics Policy Committee: This committee reviews pending activities at the federal and state levels; learns about best practices and key topics and provides input into guidance on related ethical standards and compliance issues.

If you have questions or want to get more involved in marketing and ethics, please contact ethics@ana.net. We look forward to collaborating with you in our shared efforts to ensure good business practices, consumer protection in the marketplace, and consumer trust by providing accountability.

Source

"ETHICS ALERT: Fake Warranties and Marketing Offers Cloaked as Unpaid Invoices." Senny Boone, ANA SVP, Center for Ethical Marketing, 5/22/22.