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Category: Autos

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Online car-selling scam nets $4 million, prosecutors say

Cars
For more than three years, six foreign nationals ran an Internet vehicle-selling scam that bilked customers out of more than $4 million without delivering a single car, motor home or boat, according to a federal indictment out of Los Angeles this week. 

The indictment charges six people from Germany, Russia, Romania and Latvia with conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud and money laundering.

Starting in 2007 through 2010, the group put vehicles up for sale on auto-trading websites such as EBay Motors, Edmunds.com and Craigslist and collected at least $4 million from customers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The funds were put into at least 110 bank accounts that were fraudulently set up using fake identities, according to the indictment. The money was then sent to Europe using wires, carry-on luggage or mailed packages, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors point to Romanian national Corenliu Stefan Weikum and Russian national Yulia Meshina-Heffron -– who both went by a slew of aliases –- as the ringleaders of the scheme.

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun / AP Photo

Ford-brand auto sales pass 2 million for first time since 2007

Ford
Sales of Ford-brand autos zipped past the 2-million mark for the first time since 2007, Ford Motor Co. said Friday.

With strong year-over-year gains recently from models such as the Ranger, the Explorer and the Escape, Ford’s namesake brand is set to finish 2011 in prerecession style.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker, the second-largest in the U.S., said that sales of small Ford-brand cars such as the Fiesta and Fusion are on track to finish up 20%. Light trucks may see a 30% gain.

Last month, 160,560 Ford-brand autos were sold –- a more-than-20% increase compared with the same month in 2010. As of the end of November, the company reported sales of more than 1.86 million Ford-brand vehicles.

Recently, the automaker said its retail market share has averaged about 15% -- its highest in five years. Ford also owns the Lincoln and Mercury brands.

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Auto sales expect best year since since 2008, says TrueCar

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: A 2012 Ford Focus SEL Sedan, left, and a 2012 Ford Fiesta SE. Credit: Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press

Auto sales expect best year since since 2008, says TrueCar

Chrysler
The auto industry is expected to wrap up a year of slow but steady recovery with the most vehicle sales since 2008.

More than 12.8 million cars and trucks were sold in 2011, the highest volume since the 13.2 million that were sold in 2008, according to price-tracking website TrueCar.com this week.

That’s 1.2 million more than last year but less than the 13.8 million vehicles TrueCar predicts will be sold next year as the economy improves.

In December, new-car sales will be up 8.1% from the same period in 2010 and 24.4% up from November on an unadjusted basis, according to TrueCar. Used-car sales will also be up.

Hyundai and Kia will sell 39.9% more cars in December than in the same month last year while Chrysler will see a 33.8% bump in year-over-year sales, according to TrueCar.

Honda sales this month are expected to be down nearly 16% compared to last year, while Toyota will suffer a 1.7% slip — the only automakers to see a sales slide, TrueCar forecasted.

GM will claim the most market share, with 18.9%, followed by Ford’s 16.5% and Toyota’s 14.1%. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota will be the top-selling brands.

“This year was absent of a blockbuster sales month but we see this pace of growth as healthy and sustainable in the coming year,” said Jesse Toprak, TrueCar’s vice president of industry trends and insights, in a statement.

Last week, J.D. Power and Associates also predicted strong sales, anticipating 12.7 million sales of light vehicles this year and 13.8 million for 2012, though forecasters warned that the industry would have to overcome the slow summer season to keep selling momentum. 

Edmunds.com also released its estimates last week, saying that 2011 will end with 12.8 million sales — a 10% increase from 2010. Next year, the auto information site expects 13.6 million vehicles to be sold.

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— Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Customer Frank Barba views 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles at Arrigo Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep car dealership in West Palm Beach, Fla. Credit: Mark Elias / Bloomberg

Lexus unveils new LF-LC concept car, designed in Newport Beach

The Lexus LF-LC 2+2 sport coupe will be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Lexus is looking to put some zip back in its lineup of luxury cars.

Designers at the Toyota studio in Newport Beach have developed a concept car, the LF-LC 2+2 sport coupe, to be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month.

“Crafted from a clean sheet of paper at the request of Lexus headquarters in Japan, the LF-LC blends both high technology and organic shapes to connect the driver to the machine,” said Mark Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager. “The clean lines of the vehicle emphasize motion, creating a distinctive look for this futuristic sport coupe.”

The project was conceived as a design exercise to explore the future of Lexus styling and was created at the company’s Calty design studio in Newport Beach.

Lexus is a division of Toyota Motor Corp. It has been the perennial luxury car sales leader in the United States but looks to lose its crown to either BMW or Mercedes-Benz this year. 

The brand has been hurt by supply problems caused by natural disasters, including the March earthquake in Japan which shuttered production and disrupted auto parts manufacturing. But car reviewers have also criticized Lexus for a lack of styling panache in its lineup of cars and sport-utilities.

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-- Jerry Hirsch

twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Colorado agency opens investigation into TrueCar.com auto sales

Ford cars for sale at an auto dealership

The agency that oversees auto sales in Colorado has launched a probe into the operations of TrueCar.Com, the fast growing Internet sales referral service.

Santa Monica-based TrueCar is already in a fight with Honda Motor Co., which has told its dealers that they will forgo advertising subsidies if they post deeply discounted prices on TrueCar’s website.

Colorado launched the probe after receiving objections to the buying service from the Colorado Automobile Dealers Assn. and an additional unspecified complaint. 

The state’s Department of Revenue is looking into what it described as advertising violations. The agency also said TrueCar might not have the correct license for conducting car sales through Colorado dealers.

In a statement, TrueCar said it is “addressing technical and procedural questions raised by regulators who may not know what to make of our service.... TrueCar invites and takes seriously questions about consumer protection, and is vigilant about ensuring that its partner dealers honor their commitments to buyers.”

TrueCar has grown quickly by signing up about 5,000 dealers nationwide who offer shoppers a no-haggle, up-front price on a vehicle. Dealers pay TrueCar $299 per new car sold and $399 per used car sold. The company is on track to collect about $100 million from commissions this year, according to TrueCar executives.

The online service features dealers who offer guaranteed pricing near or even below a vehicle's invoice, which many consumers believe represents the price the dealer paid for the auto. (Because of various back-end allowances and payments, the dealer cost is typically below the invoice.)

The TrueCar system also is used by several auto shopping referral services, including Consumer Reports and USAA, which provides financial services to members of the U.S. military.

Colorado regulators said that TrueCar’s violations include failing to include the stock number of a vehicle for sale, using the word “invoice” in advertising, not using big enough type for disclaimers and failing to advertise vehicle pricing that includes delivery and handling fees.

“There would appear to be the potential for a consumer who has been quoted a price for a specific vehicle and assured a guarantee arranging at the dealership to find the vehicle has already been sold… this may constitute a bait and switch transaction which is prohibited,” Colorado's Department of Revenue said in a Thursday memo obtained by The Times.

The agency has told TrueCar to correct the advertising violations and meet with the agency to discuss the licensing issue. Dealers have been told that if they use the referral company, they will be liable for any problems resulting from consumer complaints about a TrueCar transaction.

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-- Jerry Hirsch
twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photo: Fords for sale at an auto dealership. Credit: Associated Press

Consumer Confidential: Holiday shopping, fewer fliers, gas pains

Shoppic

Here's your last-train-to-Clarksville Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--We're still shopping, right down to the wire. Sales at stores opened at least a year rose 3.4% for the week ended Saturday compared with the previous week, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Sales Index. That follows two consecutive weekly declines as shoppers took a break after a discount-fueled spending spree over the Thanksgiving weekend. Compared with a year ago, sales for the week rose 4.6%. And there's still more shopping to do. According to a poll of 1,000 shoppers conducted by ICSC and Goldman Sachs, shoppers on average completed 70% of their holiday buying as of Sunday. Moreover, 9% of shoppers polled hadn't even started their holiday buying. Man, talk about procrastinators. (Associated Press)

--And we're still traveling, but not quite as much. The estimate for the upcoming winter holiday travel period predicts there will be fewer fliers than a year ago. A projected 43.3 million air travelers will fly on U.S. carriers for both domestic and international routes during a 21-day period, according to Airlines for America, the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines. That's a 1% drop from the same period last year, which translates to about 20,000 fewer passengers on average per day. However, travelers will not find that translates into more leg room once they board planes. On the busiest days, flights will be filled to at least 85% capacity, according to the forecast. (CNN)

--Feeling a bite out of your earnings? That's your gasoline bill talking. Despite the fact that gas prices have been falling in recent weeks, the fact is consumers have spent more money on gas this year than any other, according to the Oil Price Information Service. As of mid-December, gas prices have averaged $3.52 per gallon. Based on recent demand trends, the total consumers will have spent on gas this year should be about $481 billion. Last year, motorists spent a total of $389 billion on gas, according to OPIS. When all of this data is broken down, each American household will have spent an average of $4,155 on gasoline 2011, approximately 8.4% of an average family's income. Ouch. (ConsumerAffairs.com)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Polls show Americans still have plenty of holiday shopping to do. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

 

Just in time for Christmas, build a 1967 Mustang from scratch

'67 Mustang body
Here’s the latest gift for the car enthusiast on your Christmas list -– a brand-new body shell for a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible.

Even better, this car body will match or improve on the fit, finish and quality of the original, said Dennis Mondrach, Ford Restoration Parts licensing manager.

The $15,995 auto part is the fourth reproduction classic Mustang body available to restorers, joining the ’65 convertible, the ’67 fastback and the ’69 fastback.

Made by Dynacorn International, the body panels are stamped from modern automotive-grade steel that is slightly thicker than the original, according to Jim Christina, Dynacorn’s general manager. There are also newly engineered reinforcements in known stress areas to add strength and rigidity to the body, he said.

“These days, the chances are fairly slim of finding a restorable, rust-free ’67 Mustang that has never been wrecked,” said Mondrach of Ford. “As the value of classic Mustangs has increased over the years, garages, barns and scrap yards have been picked clean.”

The automaker said the body can be built into a functioning car using one of the six engines the original vehicle was offered with or with a modern powertrain.  It is rustproofed and primed and is otherwise ready for painting and assembly, Mondrach said.

More than 90% of the parts needed to restore a 1967 Mustang convertible are available new as Ford-licensed reproduction components, allowing enthusiasts to basically build from scratch a new Mustang of that era.

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-- Jerry Hirsch
twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photo: A brand-new body shell for a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible. Credit: Ford Motor Co.

Consumer Confidential: Saab's woes, Nissan recalls, bearish penalty

Saab Automobile has filed for bankruptcy
Here's your ain't-no-mountain-high-enough Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Sayonara, Saab? Saab Automobile has filed for bankruptcy, bringing the Swedish carmaker to the brink of shutting for good after failing to find investors to rescue the 74-year-old company. Saab, which General Motors sold to Swedish Automobile in February 2010, won protection from creditors in September and has been seeking funding since then. Guy Lofalk, Saab's court-appointed administrator, applied on Dec. 7 to end the reorganization, saying the carmaker was out of money and had no realistic hope of gaining financing soon. Swedish Automobile's stock plunged as much as 76% to 5 cents. How do you say "fare thee well" in Swedish? (Los Angeles Times)

--Speaking of vehicles, heads up: Nissan is recalling some 2010 and 2011 models of its Sentra small car for a battery-related problem -- the second time in a month it has recalled the cars for a battery issue. And it's recalling its Juke small car because a bracket could break and cause the engine to stall. The latest recall involves Sentras built from May 11 through May 22, 2010, and from July 8 through Oct. 25, 2010. A zinc coating on a bolt that holds the battery cable is too thick and can reduce voltage, resulting in hard starting and damage to the engine control module. As a result, the engine could stall and be hard or impossible to restart. (USA Today)

--The bear necessities: The people who make the Build-A-Bear toy bears have agreed to pay a $600,000 penalty for failing to report a safety defect that resulted in injuries to consumers. The penalty results from the company's alleged failure to immediately report problems involving a toy bear beach chair. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said sharp edges of the chair's folding frame could pinch, lacerate and even amputate a child's fingertip. The chairs were recalled in May 2009, by which time there were at least 10 reports of injuries, which the St. Louis-based company apparently knew about but didn't report. In agreeing to the settlement, Build-A-Bear said it denies allegations about the existence of a defect or hazard, or that it violated the law. (ConsumerAffairs.com)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Saab may be going bye-bye after filing for bankruptcy. Credit: Eric J. Shelton / Associated Press

Bankruptcy looks to be end of the road for Saab

Saab900

Saab Automobile, the quirky Swedish automaker that liked to advertise its heritage as a fighter jet producer, filed for bankruptcy Monday, ending a two-year effort to revive the business after it was spun off by General Motors Co.

Saab Chief Executive Victor Muller personally handed in the bankruptcy application to a court in southwest Sweden, according to the Associated Press.

His efforts to rebuild the company were stymied by GM. The U.S. automaker refused to allow Saab to transfer technology that the Swedish business had licensed from GM to Chinese investors who had planned to rescue the firm.

Muller, a Dutch entrepreneur who owns the luxury sports car maker Spyker Cars, bought Saab in 2010, pledging to restore the Swedish automaker to prominence and preserving about 3,000 jobs, mostly at the Saab plant in Trollhattan.

Now the company is expected to be liquidated.

The bankruptcy won’t cause much of a ripple in the auto market because it was such a small company, analysts said.

“Some enthusiasts in the U.S. will lament its end,” said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was an innovative brand with some unusual power trains. They did turbocharging of small engines long before others did. The cars also had all-weather, good handling capability.”

A segment of auto buyers also gravitated to Saab because it was so different from U.S. carmakers, and even other European brands, Bragman said.

Saab started out as an airplane company in 1937. Originally called Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, the name morphed into Saab.

It best known aircraft is the Viggen, or Thunderbolt, a  single-seat, single-engine fighter jet built between 1970 and 1990.

Saab’s car division liked to market its jet-precision roots, and even now pitches a “tradition of aircraft-inspired design, independent thinking and innovation that continues to this day.”

Its best-selling vehicle was the 1980s-era 900, which among other things was known for its strong performance in snow and foul-weather driving conditions.

Saab's aerospace company parent sold off a controlling stake in the business to GM in 1990 and the Detroit automaker eventually acquired the rest of Saab.  But GM was never able to leverage Saab's reputation as a builder of wedge-styled, reliable vehicles into its range, and sold off the business as it worked to recover from its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring.

Saab said it currently sells cars in 51 countries around the world through a network of about 900 dealerships. Its models include the Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan, Saab 9-3 SportCombi, Saab 9-3 Convertible, Saab 9-3X and Saab 9-5.

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Drivers change motor oil too often

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-- Jerry Hirsch
twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photo: The Saab 900 was the Swedish automaker's best selling car. Credit: Saab Automobile

New Year's Day has the most car thefts

An insurance group said New Year's Day has the most car thefts. The National Insurance Crime Bureau said that 2,347 cars were reported stolen last New Year’s Day, ranking it ahead of Memorial Day as the worst day of the year for car thievery.  

The insurance group said many of the thefts result because people leave their vehicle in unusual locations during the early morning hours of the holiday because they take cabs home after a hard  night of partying.

Some even forget to lock their doors. The insurance group didn’t speculate why, but maybe a few too many drinks might be one reason.

The group said New Year’s Eve partyers should consider the following ways to protect their vehicle from thieves.

1: Leave it safe at home and take a taxi both ways.

2: If you do leave your car somewhere, park it under a light, in a secure garage or a high traffic area.  The insurance group said that’s safer for you and your car.

3: Make sure the car is locked and the windows are rolled up.  You can also detach the battery cables before leaving the car overnight.

4: Don’t leave valuables or gifts in the car. If they are in plain sight, they can attract thieves. And even if they are hidden, they will get stolen if someone takes the car.

5: Check to see if your vehicle is GPS enabled so that it can be tracked if stolen. If not, consider a GPS tracking device.  Modern devices allow you to find your car within hours, rather than after it’s been stripped for parts and abandoned outside the city limits, the group said.

RELATED:

Drivers change motor oil too often

Insurance group lists safest vehicles

Honda recalls cars with dangerous airbags

-- Jerry Hirsch
twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photo: Los Angeles police investigate the theft and crash of a car in the Winnetka neighborhood earlier this year. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

 

 

Consumer Confidential: Online deals, safe cars, holiday accidents

Shippic
Here's your fightin'-words Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--It's Free Shipping Day! More than 2,500 retailers are participating. And just in time, here are some of the sweeter deals out there to save you even more money. At Coldwater Creek's website, enter the promo code BEST40 to get 40% off your purchase. At J. Crew's site, use the code CHEER to get 30% off. At Land's End, you'll get 40% off, and you don't even need a promo code. At the Levi's site, use the code THIRTY to get 30% off. And for Perry Ellis, enter PESIRE30AF for 30% off. (Time)

--Which cars are safest? Glad you asked. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has crunched the numbers and come up with its winners. Companies with the strongest showing included Subaru, which got top ratings for all five models it sells in the U.S. Toyota got the most top picks, with 15 of its Toyota, Lexus and Scion models. Honda gets a nod for most improved. Of the 18 vehicles new to top safety pick status this year, 10 of them were Honda or Acura models. Among high-mileage green cars, the Toyota Prius V qualifies. So do the plug-in Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. (MoneyWatch)

--And be safe in the home as well. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 13,000 people were treated in emergency departments nationwide last year due to injuries involving holiday decorations. This is an increase from 10,000 in 2007 and 12,000 in 2008 and 2009. Although estimates of deaths and injuries related to Christmas tree and candle fires are down, there are still an alarming number of incidents. Live trees or other evergreen decorations that have dried out burn fast and hot in a matter of seconds if they come in contact with an open flame. The agency recommends extra caution with flames, make sure your tree is watered, and be careful climbing up and down ladders. (Times News)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: It's Free Shipping Day. But don't overlook all the discounts as well. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

 

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