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Car dealers upgrade image

Mike Fischer sells cars at Medford's — Park, Show and Sell car lot. A new law requiring training may help — used-car dealers upgrade our industry a bit, he said.

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New Oregon law requires classes for used-car sales people to attend

Monty King has heard plenty of insults aimed at used-car dealers.

There are just as many used-car dealer jokes as politician and lawyer jokes, says King, executive director of the Salem-based Oregon Independent Auto Dealers Association. Those are probably the only two groups lower than used-car dealers in being liked.

And lawyers and politicians might contest that ranking.

But stereotypes and jokes aside, a law written by King and approved by the 1999 Oregon Legislature is aimed at educating used-car dealers and cleaning up the industry.

The association made a decision that if our industry didn't do something to improve the professionalism and ethics of the industry, somebody was going to do it for us, he says.

The law, effective Jan. 1, requires five hours a year of continuing education for used-motor vehicle dealers and eight hours of training for prospective dealers.

The law is largely an educational tool that doesn't stiffen consumer protections. Under the old rules, dealers essentially filled out forms with the Department of Motor Vehicles, paid fees and were given a handbook on state regulations. Training was offered but optional.

The new training covers the legal responsibilities of dealers and consumer issues such as lending practices, service and warranty contracts, and advertising. Prospective dealers get instruction on filling out forms, common legal pitfalls and other issues.

The programs must be approved by the state but are taught by groups like the dealers association. The idea, King says, is for the industry to regulate itself.

We felt we wanted to upgrade our industry a bit, agrees Mike Fischer, chairman of the association's board and owner of Medford's Park, Show & Sell used-auto dealership.

King hopes the program will improve the industry's image and rein in unscrupulous dealers.

They are a minority but they are hurting the industry in a huge fashion, he says.

State officials say consumer complaints against auto dealers -- especially independent used-car dealers -- are a big problem.

Enforcement efforts are largely divided between the Department of Justice, which handles fraud and misrepresentation issues, and the DMV, which handles ownership and title issues.

In 1998, the latest year for which statistics have been compiled, 398 complaints about used-car sales by independent dealers were filed with the Department of Justice. That ranked third among complaint categories, behind long-distance telephone service and financial/investment services.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Jan Margosian says the department endorsed the law as a step in the right direction.

It can't hurt, she says. Some of our problems could be lack of training and knowing what the laws are. It's one more opportunity to get our message across.

And it's pretty hard for them to say, `We didn't know anything about it' when they have had this training.

Jerry Hamlin, DMV's head of business regulation, says his department gets about 60 complaints a month about auto dealers, and more than half of those result in fines. He says enforcement efforts are hampered by the fact that the DMV has just eight investigators to monitor more than 3,000 dealerships.

Asked whether the law goes far enough to curb abuses, Hamlin said, Time will tell.

Only 2,300 to 2,500 of Oregon dealers are covered by the new law, King estimates. The law excludes dealers who have franchises with manufacturers; they already are trained by the manufacturers. The law also excludes rental companies and companies selling totaled vehicles.

The law hasn't been universally lauded by dealers. King says some have objected to additional requirements. But dealers say they are generally supportive.

It's probably a worthwhile thing, says Jeff Philips, owner of Pacific Crest Auto Sales in Medford.

I'd rather not go to the school, admits Medford's Used Car Factory owner Terry Anderson, but used car dealers have a bad enough reputation that it won't hurt anyone.

Car dealers upgrade image