Language bill to prevent fraud at boro car dealers

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Spurred by last year's series of alleged price-gouging at a Flushing auto dealership where salesmen verbally quoted customers one price in Chinese, then gave them English contracts with higher prices, local lawmakers have introduced two bills to prevent future cases of linguistic bait-and-switch in automotive purchases.

"It's a simple case of equity, a reasonable expectation that what you talked about is what you get," state Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik (D-Flushing) said at a news conference in Flushing Friday.

The bills would require that all written contracts be presented in the same language in which the oral negotiations were conducted - as long as it is one of the four languages specified in the bill. Consumers would also get a copy of the English contract.

"A car is the second largest investment people make, after purchasing a home. We want to make sure that the public is protected," state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) said. "It's not the Asian-American community, it's not the Latino community. It's everybody."

The two bills were introduced in the Legislature on March 1. One would affect the entire state and the other would only change the law in New York City.

Though the lawmakers could not specify a date when the bills would be put to vote, they emphasized that providing the same contract in four different languages was an inexpensive way to protect diverse consumers.

"We can't pretend that everyone here speaks English or speaks it well," Stavisky said. "We're offering a relatively simple remedy."

"This is easy. It's a simple issue," said City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who brought attention to the price-gouging complaints against the Citi Auto Mall last year. He pointed out that "now the honest dealers don't have to take the time to explain the English contracts."

At the Cunningham Pontiac Buick GMC dealership on Northern Boulevard, director of customer service Melissa Masters was skeptical of the proposed changes, saying that unscrupulous salespeople will develop other methods to cheat customers.

"I don't see how it's going to work," she said. "To me if you're going to act in bad faith, you'll find a way."

Masters pointed out that car contracts also need to go through banks, lending institutions and the city's Department of Motor Vehicles.

"You would have to have people speaking these languages in every department," she said. "An explanation" given to non-English speakers "before they sign an English contract would probably be better," she added.

A similar law in California requires businesses to supply contracts in Spanish, and on July 1 Chinese, Tagalog, Korean and Vietnamese-speaking residents will be afforded the same protection. The local lawmakers insist that consumers ought to have access to translated contracts.

"This is not a case of unsophisticated people getting ripped off," Grodenchik said. "This is a case of educated people getting cheated."

Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Updated 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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