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Attorney General Ellison sues used-car dealer for deceptive sales

April 23, 2024 (SAINT PAUL) — Attorney General Keith Ellison today announced that his Office has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Fridley used-car dealer Midwest Car Search and its owner, Scott Spiczka. The lawsuit alleges that Midwest Car Search: (1) misrepresents that its used cars are certified when they are not; (2) illegally adds expensive vehicle service contracts to consumers’ purchases without their consent; (3) refuses to provide warranties that it is required to provide by law; (4) fails to make accurate “Buyer’s Guide” disclosures and provide such disclosures in Spanish, as required by law; and (5) conducts business under an unregistered trade name that heavily targets and exploits Spanish speakers. Midwest Car Search fraudulently sold more than 3,000 vehicles to Minnesotans from 2017 to 2022.

“Affording your life is tough enough without bad actors taking advantage of you. A car is a necessity for many, and Minnesotans should be able to shop for cars without having to worry about being deceived or defrauded,” Attorney General Ellison said. “But that’s what Midwest Car Search did. They broke the law and violated consumers’ trust by misrepresenting the nature and quality of the cars it was selling, while also illegally including expensive add-on products in purchases without disclosing them. Equally appalling is that Midwest Car Search aggressively targeted Spanish speakers through widespread advertising campaigns in Spanish and conducted sales in Spanish, only to have those speakers sign documents in English that bore no relation to the promises Midwest Car Search made to them. I look forward to holding these bad actors accountable for cheating Minnesota consumers.”

The Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into Midwest Car Search’s deceptive and misleading business practices after receiving many consumer complaints. These included complaints from Spanish speakers, who were specifically targeted in MCS’s advertising, including through social-media advertisements in Spanish under the name “Coches MN,” which Midwest Car Search never registered as an assumed name as required by law. For more detail on how Midwest Car Service targeted Spanish-speaking customers, see pp. 12-18 of the complaint.

Attorney General Ellison filed this lawsuit to enforce the law, prevent further violations of the law, and obtain relief for consumers that have been harmed by Midwest Car Search’s deceptive practices.

Findings of the Investigation into Midwest Car Search

Misrepresentation of Vehicle Certification

Midwest Car Search has claimed that all the cars they sell are certified. These claims were made on Facebook, on websites like carsforsale.com, and by representatives of Midwest Car Search to both consumers and an investigator with the Attorney General’s Office during a secret-shop visit. Used-car certification exists to provide consumers with a guarantee that certified used cars are mechanically sound. By law, for a dealership to advertise a car as certified, the car must have been inspected for any deficiencies, must be sold with a warranty, and must not have sustained any damage that impairs safety, among other conditions spelled out in state law (Minn. Stat. § 325F.662, subd. 8a).

During the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office reviewed data from Midwest Car Search’s third-party dealer management software that revealed that none of the 3,245 cars sold by Midwest Car Search from 2017 to 2022 were certified. This was often because Midwest Car Search sold those cars “as-is,” disclaimed implied warranties of merchantability, or because consumers were not provided with an inspection report.

Consumers who believed Midwest Car Search’s misrepresentations that their cars were certified were harmed as a result. For example, one consumer, H.H., reported being told Midwest Car Search’s cars were all certified, so a test drive was not necessary. After H.H. picked up his car from the dealership, he discovered a host of mechanical problems, including but not limited to jerky steering, and the need to replace the exhaust manifold, the exhaust gasket, the tire rods, the strut assemblies, and other gaskets.

For more details and consumer stories about how Midwest Car Search misrepresented its vehicles as certified, see pp. 18-23 of the complaint.

Illegally Adding Expensive Vehicle Service Contracts to Purchases

Vehicle service contacts are an agreement between a provider and a vehicle's owner where the provider covers the replacement or repair of certain parts for a limited amount of time. Unlike warranties, the cost of which is built into the price of the car, vehicle service contracts generally require the owner to make an up-front, out-of-pocket payment.

During the investigation, the Attorney General’s Office reviewed 200 individual consumer files of Minnesotans who purchased a car from Midwest Car Search and found that in all 200 transactions, Midwest Car Search failed to properly disclose that a vehicle service contract would be included in the purchase for an added cost. Yet from 2020 to 2022, Midwest Car Search charged more than 99% of buyers who required financing for a vehicle service contract at an average of more than $1,800 for the vehicle service contract. These vehicle service contracts were often surreptitiously presented to consumers as they were signing financing paperwork, even if the consumer explicitly declined to purchase a contract.

The Attorney General’s Office estimates the value of the vehicle service contracts that Midwest Car Search illegally added to customers’ purchases at $4.5 million.

Notably, Zachary Spiczka, a Midwest Car Search employee and son of defendant Scott Spiczka, the owner of Midwest Car Search, is among the less than 1% of buyers during that time who required financing and who did not have a vehicle service contract added to his purchase.

For more details and consumer stories about how Midwest Car Search illegally added vehicle service contracts to its sales, see pp. 24-27 of the complaint.

Illegal Disclaimers of Required Warranty Coverage on Vehicles

Minnesota law requires used car dealers to provide an express, written warranty on sales of used vehicles, subject only to limited exceptions. Approximately half of the used cars MCS sold between 2017 and 2022 were entitled to warranty protection under Minnesota law based on the age, price, and mileage of the car. Despite being required to provide warranties in connection with its vehicle sales, and despite advertising that its vehicles were covered by warranties, MCS routinely provided consumers with paperwork indicating their vehicles were sold “as is” or otherwise tried to disclaim warranty coverage in violation of Minnesota law.

For more details and consumer stories about how Midwest Car Search illegally evaded its obligation to provide consumers required warranties on many of the vehicles it sold to consumers, see pp. 27-30 of the complaint.

Today’s lawsuit is the first action that the Attorney General’s Office has filed against a used car dealer following amendments to Minnesota’s Used Car Law that became effective August 1, 2023. Among other things, these amendments strengthen the scope of warranties that consumers are entitled to when purchasing a used car. The lawsuit targets Midwest Car Search’s conduct both before and after these amendments took effect.

The Attorney General’s website offers several publications for consumers with helpful tips on and warnings about the car-buying process, including information about warranties and service contracts. The Attorney General’s Office encourages consumers with complaints about auto dealers to contact the Office online. The Attorney General’s Office can also be reached by calling (651) 296-3353 or (800) 657-3787, or at (800) 627-3529 (Minnesota Relay).

 

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