Md. probes scam allegations against Antwerpen Group

Dealership pays $18,000 to 2 customers, county after price complaints

July 13, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Bob Leard wanted to buy a new pickup truck at the bargain price he saw advertised at Antwerpen Dodge in Clarksville, but he ended up buying the same make and model from a Dundalk dealer instead, and paying $3,800 more.

Now the Antwerpen Automotive Group has paid Leard and another customer a total of $5,500 and $12,500 to Howard County's Office of Consumer Affairs for using what administrator Stephen D. Hannan alleges was a classic "bait and switch." A dealership spokesman denies the accusation. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration's dealer investigations division has opened an inquiry into Antwerpen, too, said spokesman Richard Scher.

Leard, 60, of Abingdon, Harford County, saw a Dodge Dakota truck advertised for months last year. He went to Howard County to buy it, he said, after a salesman told him by phone, " `Oh, yeah, it's here, come on in.' "

But when he showed up, "they said, `Somebody's out driving it,' " and later offered other excuses, even though he asked for the same stock number specified in the ad. He gave up and bought the higher-priced truck in Dundalk, but he didn't forget.

"It's one of those things that keeps gnawing at you," Leard said, explaining why he later complained to Howard County and the Motor Vehicle Administration. "It's not the idea of the money. It's just morally, legally wrong," he said, adding that he thinks Antwerpen received too small a penalty.

"He ran that [stock] number for almost six months," Leard said. "How much money did he make off that ad? I can't believe they settled for $18,000," said Leard, who added that he is a former California car salesman and knows the business.

County investigators working on Leard's complaint later learned the truck he had tried to buy was at Antwerpen all along. It was later purchased by a customer who came in to see a 1999 model advertised at a similarly low price; a salesman steered him to the 1998 vehicle -- for more money than was advertised, Hannan said.

His investigators made five attempts to buy the truck that Leard tried to buy -- all with the same result as Leard's, Hannan said.

The county issued a subpoena for records related to the truck, which was advertised for $10,999, and presented charges that eventually led to a negotiated agreement with Antwerpen.

"I think the public should have every expectation that there's a vehicle sold at that price," Hannan said about dealer advertisements.

Antwerpen has agreed not to violate fair trade laws, to participate in a binding arbitration program for complaints and to pay the $18,000, some of which will support consumer education programs. Howard is one of two Maryland counties (Montgomery is the other) with consumer protection offices; the state attorney general's office also has a consumer protection division.

Nathan D. Adler, an attorney for Antwerpen, said owner Jacob Antwerpen "denies the charges and believes the dealership would have prevailed" in court.

Adler also said, however, the "low-level salespeople" involved in the case "have left the dealership's employ."

Bait and switch, he said, has not been and never was a policy at Antwerpen. The dealership decided to pay the county to save legal fees and "put the issue behind them," Adler said.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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