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Don’t Get Blogged Down

May 2007, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

I’d like to start this month’s editorial by saying I won my NCAA bracket (thanks to all the losers in my group). But my win would be little solace for what was one heck of a month (March). My wife and I fell victim to a purse-snatcher. Stick with me here, I’m getting to my point.

My wife and I were catching the UCLA vs. Pitt game at a Santa Monica, Calif., sports bar when it all went down. The culprit apparently reached underneath our table and dragged her purse out from under the both of us. Luckily, my wife’s cell phone slipped out of her bag as it was being dragged away.

And it was a good score: an iPod, a really good digital camera, her credit cards, keys and driver’s license (containing our home address). And let me tell you, my wife and I never felt so vulnerable, which brings me to my topic of choice this month: identity fraud.

No, I’m not going to tell you that ID thieves are now focusing on your dealerships. I think we’ve emphasized that enough already. And no, I’m not going to give you 10 ways to catch an ID thief. We did that in March. What I’m going to talk about is an obvious need for this industry to inform its customers about what law enforcement is actually recommending we do to protect ourselves and our customers from ID thieves.

Take South Bay BMW in Torrance, Calif. Acting on a recommendation from law enforcement, this dealership implemented an F&I policy requiring that managers obtain their customer’s thumbprints before completing a transaction. Unofficially, the company said it completed about 5,200 transactions before one customer balked at the request. Unfortunately, this customer had her own blog, her own voice, if you will. And, unfortunately, the local media was reading.

According to Lorna Herf’s Lornamtic blog, she entered South Bay BMW intent on purchasing a new X3. After the two sides agreed on a price, the dealership handed her a policy statement and told her she would have to provide her thumbprint to complete the transaction. For Herf, the request was a violation of her privacy, as she equated the request to the way one would treat a criminal.

On March 21, Herf’s story and blog made the 11 o’clock news on ABC7. My wife’s purse was stolen on March 22. And let me tell you, feeling as vulnerable as I was at that point — I couldn’t help but think that Herf’s protest wasn’t out of bounds. Well, until the magazine started making a couple of phone calls.

I first talked to Charlie Gill with the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association, who recalled a news conference where Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton recommended that dealerships aid in law enforcement’s efforts to arrest and prosecute ID thieves by simply asking for a fingerprint.

“When dealers would call [about a potential case of fraud], police would ask, ‘Did you get a fingerprint?’” Gill said. He advised that I also talk to Lt. David Meenk, who works with the Taskforce for Regional Autotheft Prevention (TRAP), a multi-agency taskforce aimed at curbing vehicle theft and fraud. Now this is where things got interesting.

Herf, who conducted her own online research on TRAP’s recommendation, questioned whether the dealership made up TRAP after she could not locate the agency’s Web site. And for any dealership dealing in the Los Angeles County area, you know TRAP isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination (check back to the February issue on how TRAP aided Los Angeles prosecutors in catching several dealership employees for payment packing) — no matter how difficult it is to find its Web site. And trust me, it is.

So I spoke with Lt. Meenk and he said that law enforcement has indeed recommended that dealerships obtain thumbprints to help TRAP arrest and prosecute ID thieves. “It would really benefit the dealerships and the consumers at large if more and more dealerships would use this (fingerprint policy) as a tool,” he said, and added that law enforcement did support a 2005 Senate bill that would have required that dealerships implement thumbprint policies. The bill did pass, but with all language related to car dealerships cut out.

So I asked him if he thought consumers needed to be educated about what dealerships are being told to do to curb identity fraud. “It would be great to get that info out to more consumers,” he replied.

And that’s where the problem lies.

Unfortunately, TRAP’s recommendation never reached the ears of consumers like Herf. And, unfortunately, that came at the expense of South Bay BMW. And Herf and her supporters did tee off, picking on misspellings in the dealership’s policy statement. At one point, one Herf supporter — pointing at the company’s 2005 honor of being one of the top 25 revenue-generating dealerships in the Los Angeles County — wondered if the four vehicles the dealership said were stolen by ID thieves necessitated a thumbprint policy when the dealership pulled in $202 million in 2005 revenue. Yep, that’s how bad it got.

The good news is that South Bay BMW’s thumbprint policy got a little help from a KTLA-TV on March 29. It reported that thumbprints helped authorities catch a thief attempting to purchase vehicles under someone else’s identity. Unfortunately, the alleged culprit happened to be a car salesman. Oops!

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