States are struggling with rules for selling and advertising cars online.
For example, one state law puts an auto dealer at risk when somebody else takes his dealership's ad, alters the information then posts it on a different Web site. The process is known as scraping.
As one dealer puts it, retail auto marketing online is still "the Wild West." State regulators are meeting this week and will discuss scraping and other online marketing issues such as:
- Fees paid to lead generators
- Cross-border shipments
- Content of advertising.
For an example of the confusion, consider what happened to Virginia dealer Mike Duman. A year ago Duman received a certified letter saying he was violating state advertising regulations. The Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealer Board's complaint? Internet listings for two vehicles failed to disclose the amount of the document processing fees.
Duman says that the ads he authorized showed the fee. But when he checked the listings in question, he was taken aback. They didn't list the fee. And they were on Web sites that he didn't even know existed -- an example, he says, of the way listings mushroom out across the Internet.
These days, the listings spread from major car-sales sites, with which a dealer has a contract, to secondary sites linked to those major sites. After that, the listings may be grabbed by "scraper" sites that pull listings from other sites to bulk up their own offerings. And sometimes those sites trim details from the original ad to fit their formats, Duman says.
"A dealer in a lot of instances does not have any knowledge of what's getting posted to other sites," says Duman, who adds he forwarded printouts of 34 similar online listings from Virginia dealers to the state.
"I printed off all 34 of those, and I faxed them to the motor vehicle board," Duman recalls. "I said, 'Two wrongs don't make a right, but obviously there's a problem here.'
"They were legitimate dealers, and they didn't even know this was going on."
The state declined to take action against Duman, a state official said.
Recycled vehicle listings are just part of a broad array of issues that can land dealers in trouble as they negotiate the rapidly changing world of online marketing.
Some in the industry question whether traditional concepts such as brokering, bird-dogging, curbstoning and state advertising restrictions are outdated in the digital world. But they're still on the books and may trip up dealers using new marketing techniques.