CHARLOTTE, N.C. New Jersey is suing the auto-leasing group of Bank of America Corp., alleging that the unit based here violated state law in the way it charged customers for damages to leased vehicles in the past five years.
In a suit filed in Superior Court in Newark, N.J., the state alleged that Banc of America Auto Finance Group Inc. and two predecessor companies overcharged consumers for excessive wear and tear on vehicles, denied them the right to contest the fees, and in some cases waited months to bill customers for damages.
A Bank of America spokesman declined to comment.
The state is seeking civil penalties, attorneys fees, and other costs, and a court order to halt the practices. It is also asking the Bank of America unit to reimburse people for improper charges. The suit claims that the practices violate either the states Consumer Fraud Act or its Consumer Protection Leasing Act and in some cases violate both.
The suit filed March 14 by Attorney General John J. Farmer Jr. is the eighth in a series of complaints New Jersey officials have pressed against auto-leasing companies and the third involving end-of-lease transactions.
The allegations came after several years of rapid growth in consumer leasing of vehicles; leasings growth rate outstripped the purchase rate.
While leasing is increasingly common, the expensive problems that can sometimes accompany it are often not common knowledge, Mr. Farmer said in a statement. We will prosecute whenever there is a clear need to protect citizens from fraud and abuse.
State officials said they have gotten 72 consumer complaints since 1996 against Banc of America Auto Finance Corp. and Nationsbanc Auto Leasing Inc., which operated before the NationsBank-BankAmerica merger. The suit also mentions Oxford Resources Corp., the former name of the Nationsbanc operation.
New Jersey Consumer Affairs Director Mark S. Herr said consumers sometimes were billed for damages they say they did not cause. In some cases, they had photographs or other records showing there was no damage when they returned the vehicles after leases expired.
Mr. Herr told of one person who got an inspection report saying his vehicle was undamaged. But more than two months later, Banc of America Auto Leasing sent him a bill for $1,688 for excessive wear and damages. When the person complained, the auto-leasing group referred his account to a collection agency.
Banc of America was required by law to send a bill to the consumer within 10 days of the vehicles return, give him an opportunity to contest the charges, and hire an independent appraiser, Mr. Herr said Thursday in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Bank of America has been reevaluating its auto-leasing business. It recently closed a series of auto dealerships that sold previously leased vehicles, and officials say that auto leases have accounted for a smaller percentage of vehicle financing in recent months.