Agency focuses on vehicle complaints

Posted May 23, 2010, at 8:20 p.m.

For a long time, Northeast CONTACT has advised people with complaints involving legal issues to notify the Maine Attorney General’s office. While that’s still good advice in many cases, there is one category of complaint that might better be referred elsewhere.

That category is related to the sale and operation of motor vehicles. The Secretary of State’s office — which operates Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles — has its own investigative arm.

The Office of Investigations deals with a range of issues. These include licensing, regulation and enforcement of laws concerning types of vehicle dealers, title fraud, odometer fraud and automobile identification, auto theft investigations, registration evasion, insurance fraud, driver license and state identification card fraud and consumer complaints.

It’s the only agency that concentrates solely on such matters, and it is busy. The office investigates about 4,000 cases each year and recovers close to $300,000 in restitution for consumers.

Investigators saw a spike a couple of years ago in cases of identity theft. The incentive for thieves’ behavior seemed to shift from underage drinking to check cashing. A senior detective with the office said ID theft continues to be a big problem.

Mark Silk says “dumpster diving” is still practiced by thieves looking for peoples’ personal and financial information; they use the data to steal identities. Silk urges everyone to shred or tear up any documents — especially unsolicited mailings — that contain account numbers or other sensitive data.

The Internet is rife with such threats. Silk says, whenever people enter credit card numbers or other private information online, be sure the site is secure (the web address will begin with https, with the “s” meaning “secure”). Never hand over your personal data on a nonsecure site.

Silk said he has no complaints about most car dealers. “I think overall, dealers in Maine are really good,” he said, noting that a few bad apples do a lot to give good dealers image problems.

Problems that do occur may involve a car’s warranty of inspectability, meaning it can pass inspection as safe to drive. Silk said the actual condition of a vehicle may be much poorer than the document indicates.

Silk said his office has received some complaints about cars bought at “buy here-pay here” discount dealerships. He said the law is the law, no matter what the cost of a used car.

Silk said some shoppers believe discount must mean sub-standard. “They think they’re not entitled to a safe vehicle; that’s just not right.”

The Office of Investigations works closely with the Maine Attorney General’s office, and when a “pattern of abuse” is found, prosecution through the AG’s office may result. You may file a complaint online at www.maine.gov/sos/bmv/investigations or by calling 624-9000, ext. 52144.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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