Help! Doug: Why Aren't "Too Good To Be True" Ads Illegal?

June 29, 2010

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Q. The car dealer's TV ad promised $4,500 for anything I could "push, pull or drag" in. I made the trip, but it was "Too Good To Be True" and would've had to buy one of the cars on their lot with a really bloated price. Otherwise, they wouldn't give me squat for my old truck. Why can't "too good to be true" ads be made illegal?

A. American culture and freedom of the press gives advertisers latitude to run ads that require you to read fine-print. Whether a TV ad with fine print is understood with a single view, or requires one to pause, replay, rewind, pause and reply repeatedly before you understand what it says, there is nothing illegal IF an ad provides you with the complete explanation of conditions and terms of an offer. Our opinions that an ad seems misleading or deceptive means nothing if contains fine print with a complete and proper disclosure of terms.

But not every Too Good To Be True (TGTBT) deal is a scam.

•  Some people do sell really valuable used cars for less than the vehicle is worth. In my attempt to find a great car real cheap, I stumbled upon a one-owner, dealer-maintained 1992 Celica GT convertible with just 75,000 miles for $3,750. At first I was tempted to pass on the offer; because it definitely seemed TGTBT. However, as I investigated the car further, the senior citizen original owner needed to replace it with a more appropriate car for her age and body. When that became clear, we had the car passed through a thorough pre-purchase inspection. In the end this unbelievable car proved to be everything and more than my client hoped for for under $4,000. 

•  There's the story (or "urban myth") of an affluent husband who tried to soften the blow of his intent to divorce his first love, and skip off with a younger woman. He simply gave his distraught soon to be "x" the signed title to his prized Porsche. He told her: "It's worth a lot," and go ahead and "sell it for whatever you can get for it and keep half." She placed an ad in the paper and when the first call came; she told the guy "there was no typo". With cash in hand, he arrived, signed papers, took the car, the title, and drove off grinning. But that smile on the buyer's face was nothing compared to the strange, but satisfied smile on hers, as drove her own car over to the bank to deposit all 5 of the $100 bills the buyer paid her into the family bank account. 

•  Then there's the true story about a Coloradan who enjoyed the ultimate 2009 Cash-for-Clunkers TGTBT deal. His "worthless trade" netted $4,500. The 2009 federal tax credit would eventually reimburse him all sales taxes. These benefits, together with a special Colorado State tax earned by purchasing a new hybrid, netted the man a whopping $9,400 in actual cash benefits.

A competent car shopper knows that there are things other than fine-print that may tip you off the fact that an ad is not completely forthright.  The worst abusers as professional "private parties" advertising used cars in the classifieds with prices that are simply "too low" to be true. Things are even less likely to be true when those  same vehicles have exceptionally low mileage. These deceivers post ads describing their cars using terms like "looks perfect", "drives strong", "incredibly clean", "new paint", etc. As true as those quips may be, focusing on good looks, cleanliness, strong performance and shiny new paint distract many buyers from recognizing things much more fundamental under the skin of the vehicle.

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