By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Whether you’re buying or selling cars parked on roadsides and mall parking lots, beware.
Many such sales are illegal, and buyers frequently get stuck with lemons and no where to turn for repairs.
Last month, Maryland tightened restrictions on curbside car sales, cutting the number of cars a person without a license can legally sell in a year from four to two. At the same time, the state has intensified efforts to find unlicensed dealers.
In Anne Arundel County, state and county officials, along with the auto dealer’s association, formed a task force to combat “curbstoning,” as the parking lot auto sales are known. They hope to formalize a process that could help educate the public, make it easier to charge violators and provide a model for other counties. The group expects to release guidelines in mid- December.
Buyers and dealers have filed more than 265 curbstoning complaints with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration since September 2001, with more than 70 percent of those complaints coming this year, said Andy Srebroski, special projects manager for MVA’s investigations division.
“It’s a major problem for the members,” said George Manis, executive director of the Maryland/Delaware Independent Automobile Dealers Association. “It’s a major problem for the consumers and the state.”
Earlier this year, the General Assembly capped individual car sales at two per year. Offering to sell more vehicles without a dealer’s license could mean a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Previously, unlicensed dealers could offer up to four cars for sale, with violations subject to a $1,000-fine and 6 months in jail – a provision that was too lax for enforcement, dealers and others said.
Maryland’s law, said Michael Linn, executive vice president of the Arlington, Texas,-based National Independent and Auto Dealers Association, is one of the stiffest in the country, but problems in enforcement and educating the public still remain.
Few are aware of the problem, Manis said. Even police and elected officials were reluctant to consider the issue.
Auto dealers, however, knew the effects.
In a 1981 study, the last available, the MVA found about 25 percent, or 70,000, of the 280,000 used vehicles sold by individuals were sold by curbstoners, Manis said. At an average estimated value of $2,500 per car then, curbstoners raked in about $175 million.
“It actually hurts the state because it deprives them of sales tax revenue,” Linn said. “It hurts the consumer because the consumer is not protected in any way.”
The state lost about $8.8 billion in 5-percent excise taxes, the study reported. Today, that could be three to four times greater, Manis said.
The findings are inconclusive, the MVA said.
Sidney Hyatt, MVA’s manager of investigative and security services, said he tried to confirm the figures, but could not find the 1981-1982 data the MVA reportedly used, nor did anyone he talked to know of the study.
Even now, it’s hard to find concrete numbers of how much of an economic impact curbstoning has had on the state, Hyatt said. Still, the figures are prominently cited by the Maryland dealers’ association in its fliers.
Dealers are irate because curbstoners operate under the radar of the law, Manis said. They often buy cars out of state and bring them in. They purposely avoid state-required fees. They don’t pay taxes.
“What happens is some of these people don’t want to put up that money,” Manis said, “and what they try to do is cut corners and take advantage of the general public.”
Sometimes, Manis warned, they sell stolen vehicles or those that have rolled-back odometers or flood-damaged structures.
Most curbstoners, though, buy their goods through state-sponsored auctions. They plop them somewhere near a busy road and display a telephone number. Then, they sell the cars to shoppers looking for a great deal.
“Whenever you purchase from a private party, you do run the risk of not knowing the entire history of that vehicle,” said Myra Wieman, spokeswoman for AAA for the mid-Atlantic region. AAA warned members about these types of transaction in its magazine, AAA World.
Catching curbstoners, however, has proven to be difficult, investigators said. They often move to another location after being warned or as soon as a deal is done.
“They have the whole state to go to,” said Raymond Burkentine, one of two MVA investigators assigned to curbstoning. “It’s hard to keep track of them.”
Even though investigators can trace the phone numbers left on cars or in newspaper ads, it’s not easy to gather evidence against them. So far this year, only four have been charged, Hyatt said.
In fact, the only way the state recognized the problem was through tracking complaints made to the MVA – a practice that pegged Anne Arundel County as a hotbed of illegally sold cars.
Curbstoners also often violate local zoning restrictions, said Delegate Theodore Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel. As administrative officer for the county’s state attorney’s office, Sophocleus was also one of the major sponsors of the curbstoning bill.
In the beginning of November at one Annapolis shopping center, about 30 vehicles were found lined up for sale, looking like a used car dealership, Sophocleus said.
“The (center) owner didn’t know that you couldn’t sell vehicles on the parking lot,” he said. Investigators warned the owner to move the cars.
Curbstoners, said Manis, “are parking lot bandits.”