State investigators knew they were on to something when they discovered wide fluctuations in prices – $215 to $5,443 – for essentially the same product sold to car buyers at Nissan of New Rochelle.
A customer had complained to the New York State Attorney General’s Office in August 2015 about a puzzling $1,500 charge labeled “total loss” on the bill of sale.
Investigators analyzed paperwork for Total Loss Protection sales and identified 298 customers who had been fleeced for a bogus anti-theft product.
On Aug. 8, Anthony Panarella, president of Pana Nissan LLC, owner of the Nissan dealership at 2533 Palmer Ave., agreed to refund $276,128, an average of $927 for each customer, who paid for the product. The company also will pay the state $22,084 in penalties and cost.
Customers were tricked, according to the settlement agreement, after they had negotiated a price for their vehicle. Then they were directed to a “finance and insurance” manager whose job was to sell add-on products and services.
In many instances, the manager simply added Total Loss Protection to the bill without the buyer’s knowledge. Sometimes the product was described as a type of insurance or warranty. In other cases, customers were led to believe the guarantee was a mandatory part of the sale price.
Total Loss Protection was sold as an etching product designed to deter theft by permanently engraving windows with a unique serial number. State law requires such etchings to permanently mark windows by a laser, chemical or mechanical process.
But Nissan of New Rochelle did not etch windows, according to the settlement signed for the state by Sandra Giorno-Tocco, an assistant attorney general in White Plains. Customers were registered for an “etch guarantee,” and some were given decals with a registration number.
Pana paid Nation Motor Club Inc., doing business as Nation Safe Drivers, $235 for each guarantee. It resold them for an average price of $1,040.
Customers were led to believe that they would receive a credit for $3,000 to $5,000 toward the purchase of a new vehicle, if their car were stolen. But the credit was “illusory,” according to Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, subject to several conditions and limitations.
The car owner had to have insurance for 100 percent of the cash value of the vehicle. The loss had to be reported to police within 24 hours. The replacement had to be bought from Nissan of New Rochelle. And the credit could not be applied if it eliminated Pana’s profit or caused the dealer to break even.
Only one customer ever collected, having paid $2,000 for the etch guarantee and receiving $3,000 for a replacement vehicle.
Pana quickly stopped selling the product after the investigation began.
In signing the settlement, Panarella neither admitted nor denied the attorney general’s findings. He also agreed to several conditions:
• Nissan of New Rochelle and its sales staff will not engage in deceptive, fraudulent or illegal business practices.
• After-sale products will not be bundled with the price of the vehicle.
• The dealership will fully disclose that all products and services discussed after the vehicle’s sale price is established are optional and negotiable.
• The dealership will clearly explain the products.
• The bill of sale will identify services and products by their full, actual names and not by initials, abbreviations or acronyms.
• Items will be added to the final bill only with the knowledge and full consent of the buyer.