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Auto industry as boogeyman? Depends on your view

Jim Henry is a special correspondent for Automotive News

The Federal Trade Commission's latest annual report of U.S. consumer complaints could be a good inkblot test for how people feel about auto finance.

The FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book for 2012 details millions of unconfirmed consumer complaints of identify theft, fraud and other types compiled by the FTC, state law enforcement and consumer protection agencies, and nongovernment groups such as the Better Business Bureau.

Critics of the auto industry could say auto-related complaints were among the top five most common complaints. Out of eight subcategories of auto-related complaints within the report, auto financing was the only one with more complaints compared with the year before.

Consumers also complained about "misleading or deceptive claims" in "auto warranty plans & services," said the report, which was released on Tuesday.

The statistics could also bust the notion of the auto industry as boogeyman. Total auto-related complaints made up less than 4 percent of the total, down from just over 4 percent last year. And that includes complaints about the price of gasoline.

Overall, identity theft was the No. 1 category of complaint, and that's what will probably get the most headlines. Within the identity-theft category, a tiny number of complaints -- 0.6 percent of the overall total -- indicated someone's identity was stolen in connection with an auto loan. That number declined for the second year in a row, down from 1 percent two years ago.

If that's a true indication of the real world, the identity-theft deterrent aspect of the Red Flags Rule is either working great or it's complete overkill. It depends on how you look at it.

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