FTC warns of fake recall notices from car dealerships

When you receive a recall notice for your vehicle, it's something you should try to address right away. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said an auto dealer group operating in Maryland and Virginia has been preying on people's concerns for their own safety by sending out fake recall mailers.

According to a lawsuit from the FTC, Passport Toyota, Passport Nissan of Alexandria and Passport Nissan of Marlow Heights did it to drive traffic to their service departments. When people called to ask if their car was in fact involved, they were told they had to come in to the dealership to find out.

The mailers were marked "URGENT RECALL NOTICE" and sent to more than 21,000 people in 2015 and 2017 by the Passport dealerships.

The automotive group and its California marketing company, overflowworks.com, settled with the FTC and are now barred from any future deceptive behavior.

The concern of these fake recall notices is it not only tricks customers into visiting a dealership, but could also lead to them ignore legitimate recalls in the future.

Passport Automotive said in a statement:

"Passport Automotive has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission regarding a particular type of previous advertisement sent to owners of vehicles that may have been subject to manufacturer recalls. While we disagree with the findings and wording in the press release, we are glad to put this behind us and not have to pay any money to settle the case. We were trying to correct unrepaired vehicles subject to a recall and it was not our intention to mislead anyone.

"The advertisements were sent only because Passport was having serious problems identifying and fixing open recalls. This was largely because the manufacturer lists of unrepaired, open recalls were unavailable to Passport or other dealerships of those brands. The verbiage of the advertisements that the FTC considers improper was not created by Passport--it was originated by a California company unrelated to our business. Open manufacturer recalls are a huge problem for our industry, and this advertisement actually did allow us to reach many owners and repair many vehicles with open recalls at no cost to the owners. Many of those who responded to the advertisement did in fact have unrepaired recalls.

"Nevertheless, we agreed to a settlement with the FTC to avoid the considerable expense and disruption of defending ourselves in court. As stated in the agreed order, we admit no wrongdoing, and there has been no finding by any court that we violated the law. The settlement states certain actions we must take, and we have already done so. The settlement does not provide for any fines or penalties, nor are we aware of a single customer complaint about the advertisement in question.

"For more than 28 years, Passport Automotive has sold and serviced vehicles in Maryland and Virginia. We have over 950 employees, who are dedicated to serving our customers. Our history of high customer satisfaction record shows that we consistently meet their needs. We have accomplished this by putting the interests of our customers first, and this will always be the mission of Passport Automotive."

Here are some tips from the FTC if you receive a vehicle recall notice:

If your vehicle has a recall, get it fixed. Call your local dealer to schedule a free repair.
To check if your vehicle has a current safety recall, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website, NHTSA.gov/Recalls, and enter your vehicle identification number (VIN).

If you have questions about the recall, call the vehicle manufacturer at its toll-free number.
Sign up at NHTSA.gov/Alerts to be notified by email if your vehicle is affected by a future recall.
If you think you got a fake recall notice, report it to the FTC. Let NHTSA know, too, by reporting it at NHTSA.gov or 1-888-327-4236.

To learn more, visit NHTSA's website, safercar.gov, and check out our article on auto repairs.