Shopping for a Used Car? Beware of Flood Damage

Image courtesy of ponsulak | freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of ponsulak | freedigitalphotos.net

With the recent floods in Texas, Oklahoma and other states, consumers looking to purchase a used car—even in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska—should be wary. Scammers and unscrupulous car dealers often ship these damaged vehicles to other states to sell to unsuspecting buyers after natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates up to 10,000 insured vehicles in Texas had water damage from the May 2015 floods.

Flood-damaged vehicles that have been declared a total loss by an insurance company will have “salvage” stamped on the title. Most of these vehicles are then sold to parts companies who will sell the useable parts.

But scammers get around that by title washing: transferring ownership and retitling the autos in several states where they often “lose” the salvage stamp in the process. Other flooded vehicles may not have gone through the insurance claim process. They were purchased at bargain prices and taken to another state by unscrupulous sellers, so a title search will not indicate the car may have water damage.

These cars will show up on used car lots, in the classifieds ads in newspapers, on street corners with “For Sale” signs and online at sites such as Craigslist. Because these natural disasters happened in another part of the country, it may not be on a local car buyer’s radar to look for water damage. Flooded vehicles can be cleaned up to disguise the water damage while they are actually rotting on the inside. The car’s electrical, mechanical and computer systems can be corroded and rusting, and the lubricants may be contaminated.

“Approach a used vehicle thinking it has been flooded and look for signs to prove it,” says Frank Scafidi, Director of Public Affairs for the NICB. “If you don’t find water damage, great. If you do, don’t walk, but run from buying it.”

You can protect yourself from buying a flood-damaged vehicle by doing your research first. Remember: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do a title search through a national tracking company such as Carfax. Review the title and ownership papers for damage labels. Check the date and place of the vehicle transfer to see if it came from a flood-damaged area. And always have a trusted mechanic inspect a used car before you buy it, and ask to have the vehicle searched for flood damage that would not be visible.

Test drive the vehicle but also look for other telltale signs of possible water damage:

  • Is there a musty odor?
  • Check the wires under the dashboard. Are they flexible or are they brittle or cracked? This is a sign the car may have been submerged in water.
  • Are there any signs of rust?
  • Check all carpeting, including in the trunk. Check the condition under the carpet for signs of sand or dirt. Has the carpeting been changed? Is it too loose or not the same color as the interior of the car?
  • Check the glove compartment and beneath the seats.
  • Test everything in the car. Turn on the ignition to see if all lights and gauges come on (including the air bag lights); test the windshield wipers, turn signals, radio, air-conditioner and heater.
  • Remove a door panel and look for water marks. Check the door speakers, as they will often show damage from flooding.
  • Check under the hood for mud, grass, leaves or rust in the engine.

Better Business Bureau urges consumers to be cautious when purchasing a used vehicle. Do your research at bbb.org and make the investment to have the car inspected by a trusted mechanic.

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Does Your Advertisement Meet BBB Standards?

Written by guest blogger Alex Moore, BBB Advertising Review Consultant.

Better Business Bureau strives to be an industry leader for marketplace trust and ethics. BBB promotes truth and integrity in advertising and trade practices to protect the marketplace.

In 1912, BBB was founded by ethical business owners to review solicitations, advertisements and questionable marketing claims. BBB later created the Code of Advertising to help ensure a level playing field for businesses and an ethical marketplace for all. The Code is based on federal advertising regulations and best practices. It has been updated over the years—with its most recent revision in February 2015—to reflect current marketplace standards.

“BBB’s mission is to advance trust in the marketplace, and nothing is more fundamental to that mission than truth-in-advertising,” said Mary Power, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in a February 2015 press release.

Alex Moore

I joined BBB’s Advertising Review team about a year ago. Since then, I have assisted numerous businesses with their advertising questions and concerns, and I have challenged many to substantiate their claims.

An interaction that sticks out in my mind is one where I had contacted a company regarding a statement on its website that said, “Call your #1 dealer in Washington who has the best warranty in town!”

A claim made in an advertisement should be true and clear. A consumer should be able to take it at face value—he shouldn’t have to research and dig to find out whether it’s correct. And that’s where BBB enters the picture.

I asked the business owner to provide evidence of whom rated his company #1 and to add a disclaimer regarding his warranty. He responded angrily that in his 25+ years of being in business and using this exact phrase, he had never been questioned about it. Why is it a problem?

I explained in order for that particular statement to be completely transparent, the business needed to explain who rated it #1 and when, as well as give the details of the warranty. The problem was that information was nowhere to be found on the website. And without that information, the statement was unclear and potentially misleading to consumers. After much discussion, the business owner reluctantly agreed to modify his #1 claim and add a disclaimer about his warranty.

A couple months later, he contacted me unexpectedly and was overjoyed. He said a friend who owns his own business was recently fined a large amount of money and was experiencing many frustrations because of his advertising. The business owner thanked BBB for our services and for advising him about the changes he needed to make to his advertising. He felt we had spared him from going through the same situation as his friend.

BBB offers advertising review services free of charge to both BBB Accredited and non-accredited businesses, allowing them to excel in honest and ethical advertising. BBB also offers an avenue for consumers to present information to BBB that is potentially misleading or unethical.

Some of the services BBB proudly offers include:

  • Review advertising copy before publication.
  • Answer advertising questions, or refer you to sources that can help.
  • Provide guidelines regarding online advertising.
  • Send periodic advertising alerts about new trends in advertising, as well as educational materials promoting ethical standards.
  • Mail the Code of Advertising brochure to any interested company.

BBB is ready to assist businesses with their advertising questions! For more information about the Advertising Review program, please contact AdReview@thebbb.org.

Don’t Fall for Diet Scams

Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver
Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? Are you making progress?

One of the most popular and common resolutions is to lose weight. Experts say the best way to lose weight is simply to eat fewer calories and increase your physical activity. But everywhere you look, ads promise quick and easy weight loss without diet or exercise! That sounds tempting, but unfortunately, these claims are almost always false.

Here are 7 empty promises to watch out for. And remember, check with your doctor before starting any diet or weight loss program.

“Lose weight without diet or exercise!”
Achieving a healthy weight takes work. You simply cannot get results without effort.

“Lose weight no matter what you eat!”
Losing weight requires sensible food choices. Filling up on healthy vegetables and fruits can make it easier to say no to fattening sweets and snacks.

“Lose weight permanently! Never diet again!”
Permanent weight loss requires permanent lifestyle changes.

“Block the absorption of fat, carbs or calories!”
There’s no magic pill that will do this. The key to curbing your craving for those “downfall foods” is portion control.

“Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!”
Losing weight at the rate of a pound or two a week is the most effective way to take it off and keep it off. Products promising rapid weight loss are false and can harm your health.

“Everybody will lose weight!”
Your habits and health concerns are unique. Your health care provider can help you design a personalized nutrition and exercise program suited to your lifestyle and metabolism.

“Lose weight with our miracle diet patch or cream!”
There’s nothing you can wear or apply to your skin that will cause you to lose weight.

Red Bull Loses $13 Million in False Advertising Settlement

According to a lawsuit, RedBull’s “advertising and marketing is not just ‘puffery,’ but is instead deceptive and fraudulent and is therefore actionable.”

BBB gives high priority to truth in advertising—we believe consumers should be able to accept ads at face value to use as part of their buying decisions. We challenge misleading or deceptive ads based on national guidelines (see go.bbb.org/akorww-advertising). Our goal is to foster honest advertising and self-regulation in the marketplace.

Watch Your Buck

ID-100249810“Red Bull Gives you wings….” Not so much, according to the courts. Energy drink company Red Bull GmbH has agreed to pay out more than $13 million to settle a class action lawsuit that alleges false advertising. The settlement includes millions of individuals who have purchased Red Bull energy drinks over the last 10 years.

Consumers who purchased one or more Red Bull energy drinks between Jan. 1, 2002 and Oct. 3, 2014 are entitled to a $10 cash refund or $15 worth of Red Bull products (shipping costs will be covered by the company). If you, or someone you know, have purchased a Red Bull energy drink over the last 10 years, please visit the attached link to file your claim: http://energydrinksettlement.com/claim. Proof of purchase is not required. The claim form deadline is March 2, 2015.

NOTE: The site to file a claim seems to have gone down, likely…

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7 Tips for Writing Good Online Reviews

Writing an accurate and effective review can be tough.
Writing an accurate and effective review can be tough.

Are you interested in writing reviews that people will actually read? Are you interested in helping people make better-informed purchasing decisions? As with any skill, understanding the fundamentals is key.  And as my elementary school principal use to say: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

More and more people are turning to online reviews when researching products and services; and with thousands of new reviews posted every month, it’s an unfortunate truth that many of them are just plain unhelpful. BBB offers seven tips for writing good online reviews:

  1. Never write anything while upset. This may seem like obvious advice, but take some time—at least 24 hours—before sitting down to draft that sternly-worded review. A good review conveys objective facts about experiences; venting anger, frustration and sarcasm can make you feel better but will cloud reviews with emotions/opinions that probably won’t be very helpful to readers.
  2. Be realistic. It’s unlikely that the meal you just had was the “WORST THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE;” if your experience was less than perfect, explain why. Choose descriptions that actually describe and avoid subjective terms like “best/worst” and hyperbole.
  3. Talk about the entire experience. If the staff was unfriendly, include that in your review; but also add that the facilities were clean and the service was prompt. A lie of omission is still a lie. Again, readers of your review are seeking accurate descriptions of what to expect and this is where you can really shine.
  4. Leave out names. It’s tempting to blast the employee that was rude or the server that brought the wrong order, but that information does little to help readers. Focus on what happened rather than on who was involved.
  5. Highlight your credentials. Why should someone take your review more seriously than the one right after yours? Take a sentence or two to explain who you are and why you are an authority on this industry. On the other hand, stating that you are new to this type of transaction will help others avoid similar mistakes or misunderstandings.
  6. Address the other side of the story. Place yourself on the other side of the issue and consider the possible reasons for your experience—good or bad. Showing a little bit of understanding can go a long way in validating your review as honest and authentic.
  7. Check your spelling. It’s silly that this point makes the list, but a quick scan of any review site makes it obvious that many people to not take the time to edit properly. Obvious spelling and grammar mistakes distract readers from the review’s message. I personally skip to the next review at the first spelling mistake; I figure that if the person doesn’t care enough to make a professional effort, then the review probably isn’t that important.

A good review will tell a story about a personal experience; others may have significantly different stories. Remember, the most important part of writing a good review is being honest.

Do you feel empowered to write some effective and helpful reviews? You’re in luck! BBB now accepts customer reviews—positive and negative—on more than 360,000 local businesses. Get started at bbb.org.

Super Bowl XLVIII: Truth in Advertising

Super Bowl Commercials

Welcome to BBB’s first Super Bowl commercial analysis!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wasn’t really a big football fan until I moved to the Pacific Northwest; to be honest, the highlight of the Big Game for me was usually the commercials—yeah, I was that guy. But working in consumer protection has taught me to be more skeptical of commercials, and I believe that Better Business Bureau‘s original goal of combatting deceptive advertising is just as important today as it was 102 years ago.

Advertisers will go to great lengths to convey their message and promote their products or services, sometimes sacrificing honesty or transparency in the process. The good news is that most advertisers don’t deliberately try to deceive customers or fool people into making purchasing decisions; many simply do not realize that ads are deceptive or inaccurate until they are challenged by investigative agencies like the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ National Advertising Division. To make it easier for businesses to create honest ads and to educate shoppers about misleading claims, BBB offers the Code of Advertising—which I will be using as the baseline for this analysis as well.

So without further ado:

1)

This commercial from Volkswagen is pretty funny and I definitely enjoyed it, but my friends over at Consumer Reports make an interesting point: The car featured in this ad is a 2012 model, meaning that the driver would have to have logged 100,000 miles in approximately 18 months—while not impossible, pretty unlikely—and given the company’s poor product ratings and the fine print at the end of the ad, I’m not entirely sure that this commercial would pass Code #9: Layouts and Illustrations. Plus, is 100k miles really that impressive anymore? I would call that a pretty standard break-in period for just about any other auto…

2)

This commercial from Kia is another funny ad that I really liked. While humorous and visually-appealing, “luxury” is a highly-subjective term that is open to lots of interpretation. The implied superiority claim would probably pass BBB’s Code #13: Superiority Claims – Comparative Disparagement, but I think it’s a toss-up.

3)

This commercial from M&Ms could be challenged on the grounds of Code #14: Superlative Claims—I’m positive that Americans eat many different types of nuts—but a quick reference to the National Peanut Board indicates that peanuts certainly are “America’s Favorite Nut.” Touché, M&Ms. Touché.

4)

This commercial from Sonos shows colored waves of sound filling up rooms in a house and is extremely slick and fun to watch. But do you think it’s worth noting that every piece of hardware displayed in this ad must be purchased separately? How about the fact that many of the music streaming services that are pictured—Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Sirius XM—also cost extra? I would argue that Code #6: Extra Charges is probably violated in this commercial.

5)

“TV anywhere, any place, any time,” claims this commercial from Time Warner Cable, yet the long-winded disclaimer found at the bottom of the company’s website states that many services are not available in all areas. Should the commercial have mentioned that? According to Code #14: Superlative Claims: Subjective superlatives—or puffery—which tend to mislead should be avoided.

Deceptive advertising is any advertising that would be likely to mislead the “average” consumer, and while it would be tough to misunderstand most of these commercials, the point is to get you thinking. If I can pick apart a few ads that just aired on national television, what are the odds that deceptive ads are airing on local television stations in your town at this very moment?

Full Disclosure: Volkswagen of America, Inc and Kia Motors America, Inc are BBB AUTO LINE National Participants. Time Warner Cable is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Austin, Texas. Mars, Inc is a National Partner of BBB’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.