Monday, January 15, 2007

Y’all put stupid in the water or somethin’?

Leave it to the news media in the Lone Star State to turn a blind eye to things that affect Texas consumers. Two major legal cases are brewing, one that affects anyone who bought or buys a car in Texas and the other that shows just how ignorant the state is when it comes to identity-theft issues.

First, after years and years of legal wrangling, it looks like a settlement is going to be worked out on a case involving most, if not all of the members of the auto dealers association in Texas. Clever folks they are, they crafted a conspiracy to gouge car buyers by making it appear something called a “vehicle inventory tax” was a tax applied to the buyer at the time the car was sold.

The really crafty part was that the VIT is a tax the dealer pays – in effect, property taxes on their inventory, and there’s nothing that says that expense is to be itemized and specifically paid by the buyer at the time of sale. It’s simply part of the dealer’s business overhead. In a competitive environment, that tax may or may not have any effect on the price someone pays for a car. The ruse effectively made it look like the price was non-negotiable. Therein lies the rub. Gene Fondren, President of the Texas Auto Dealers Association circled the wagons back in 1994 and everyone in the association has been tacking on the VIT and making it look like it was something the state required the buyer to pay on the purchase documentation. It’s a bit like the dealer putting a line item on the sales documentation that shows the salesperson’s Social Security withholding for the deal and telling the buyer that the law required the buyer to pay it on top of the price of the car.

Along comes the suit way back in 1997 charging violations of the Clayton Act and the Sherman Act, and it crawled its way through the courts until a recent proposed settlement with most of the defendants. This Judge’s guess is they’ll wind up giving consumers a refund and stop showing it as a “tax” that the buyer is required to pay.

Over the last thirteen years, car buyers in Texas have been gouged – a little bit at a time, yes, but it adds up. And where’s the news coverage? Try doing a Google News search on “Texas Auto Dealers.” Zip. Nada. If the power of the auto industry ad budget isn’t alarming, it should be.

Much as no one in the Texas news media wants to look into the practices of some of the lending predators based in Texas, none of the news outlets wants to tackle the auto dealers and their millions of advertising dollars.

Wake up Texans - when you sign for a car, cross out the VIT and change the total. If they don't like it, get up and leave.

Then comes some skullduggery by some Texas corporations in obtaining drivers license and motor-vehicle data illegally. Instead of complying fully with the spirit of federal privacy laws, Texas will sell personal information to someone who claims they have a legitimate use for it. The gist of a recently-filed class-action suit is that when the Department of Public Safety or Department of Motor Vehicles sells information, they sell the whole database – without regard as to whether or not a person doesn’t want their private information sold or used.

The suit seeks damages from the companies that bought the data for all 20-million+ Texans in the database, and the statutory amount for each violation is $2,500.00. There are twelve defendants. All told, that could be $600 Billion. This ought to be fun.

Looking at the defendants makes it interesting to think about why they would want the personal information on all Texans who own and operate motor vehicles.

ACS State and Local Solutions is a division of Dallas-based automation outsourcing and services giant ACS. Part of what the company does is child support payment collections.

Fedchex is a payment processing and recovery/collections operation based in Irvine, CA.

Gila Corporation, dba Municipal Services Bureau is essentially a collection agent focusing on handling collections for municipalities. Gila is headquartered in Austin, TX.

Global 360 BGS, based in Dallas, provides technology services to a variety of public entities, including public retirement entities.

Centerpoint Energy, American Electric Power, TXU Business Services, Reliant Energy and Houston Electric Power are utilities or utility-related companies.

Southwestern Bell (SBC is becoming AT&T) is the major local phone company in Texas.

The Texas Motor Transportation Association is the state trucking industry trade group/lobbying organization, based in Austin.

The Industrial Foundation of America calls itself a “trade association” and operates under non-profit status. Based in Boerne, TX (near San Antonio), IFA is a data gathering and reporting entity that few, if any consumers or employees know of and only member companies (mostly energy and exploration related) use. Among the things IFA does: Pre-employment screening, accident history reports, criminal reports, motor vehicle reports, education verifications and credit reports.

There are 23 plaintiff’s listed in the suit and of course everyone in the Texas DMV and DPS databases is said to be a potential member of the class. But despite the case being filed January 10th, is there any word of any of this in the Texas press? Zip. Nada.

Given the amount of money energy companies are spending on advertising in the new "less-regulated" utilities market, it isn't any wonder the media isn't helping spread the word.

So at least in other parts of Texas, it appears to this court that all you have to do to avoid being exposed is make sure you spend a lot of money on advertising.

The Honorable Judge Roy Bean