Oh no, my Honda is about to explode? *

This is my 2015 Honda Pilot. It’s about to explode.

Don’t take my word for it. The official-looking notice from “Motor Vehicle Services” will leave you with little doubt that my SUV is on a short fuse and could blow any minute.

I’m telling you about the scare tactics from mysterious third-parties because every day, offers like this land in mailboxes across the country. Most are correctly identified as questionable, even fraudulent. But a few of them get through to the gullible, and I’m writing this story for them.

The notice really is scary looking:

IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO THIS NOTICE REQUIRED

ATTENTION: Christopher Elliott,

Our records indicate that you have not contacted us to have the vehicle service contract for your 2015 Honda UT updated.

Please call [number redacted].

You are receiving this notice because your factory warranty will expire or may have already expired based on the mileage and age of your 2015 Honda UT.

By neglecting to replace your coverage you will be at risk of being financially liable for any and all repairs after your factory warranty expires. However, you still have time left to activate your service contract on your vehicle before it’s too late. No vehicle inspection will be required.

No other notices will be sent for this offer. This will be our only attempt to contact you about your expiring factory warranty.

Your file on this vehicle will be deleted and you may no longer be eligible for this offer regarding service coverage after 2/28/2016.

Scary, isn’t it?

It’s true, I own a 2015 Honda. I bought it almost-new. The Honda dealership’s owner’s wife had taken it for a test spin one day and decided to keep it. But she returned it a few thousand miles later. She probably didn’t like the nav system on it. (Neither do I.)

A close look at the offer revealed a few problems. First, this didn’t say it was from Honda. Instead, it came from a mysterious “Motor Vehicle Services” — perhaps a close relative to the Department of Motor Vehicles in my state? Or maybe not?

Second problem: no price. A box below indicated that I qualified for a “Platinum” option, which included coverage of my engine, transmission, 4 x 4 transfer unit, drive axle, assembly, front end and rear suspension, steering, air conditioning unit, electronics, seals, gaskets, brake systems and “most” mechanical parts. But alas, no rate.

Third problem: The fine print. I needed to wear my reading glasses for this one.

You may have been selected to receive this special limited time offer from Motor Vehicle Services because of information in your public record consumer auto data file. Final acceptance is subject to your ability to meet our full eligibility requirements. This is an advertisement to obtain coverage.

Ah-ha! It’s an ad.

I looked up Motor Vehicle Services at its Missouri address. Other car owners had interesting stories to tell. I can’t say I was surprised by any of them.

Why am I telling you about this unsolicited notice?

  • It had us — and by us, I mean our entire family — momentarily worried that something horrible was about to happen with our car. Was our vehicle about to spontaneously combust unless I immediately called Motor Vehicle Services’ toll-free number? Perhaps.
  • I immediately began to think about the folks out there who were not consumer advocates or who could not read eight-point type. My late grandmother would have fallen for this. She was a smart woman, that one. But she was a sucker for anything on an official letterhead.
  • It occurred to me that this kind of advertising really pushes the limit of an unfair and deceptive business practice. Other consumers have reported that Motor Vehicle Services has similar ads that make their offer appear as if it came from the manufacturer. Should this kind of ad be allowed?

Our offer went straight into the circular file. And for good reason: We’d just been to our dealership for a routine maintenance and I’d paid good money to have my oil changed, the tires rotated, and the transmission fluid replaced. It’s unlikely any offer, official or otherwise, would take those bills away.

Parenthetically, I had a great time sitting in the lobby of our dealership and narrating the new-car sales process for my kids.

“Watch them drawn to the new cars like moths to a flame! And all for a low price. What’s that? Just $22,999 for that Accord?” I said. Then I’d point them to the cubicles. “That’s where they tell them the real price, boys.” And further down, in dark hallways of the dealership, away from the sales floor, “that’s where they do the financing.”

And how do I know all this? I’ve bought two cars from the same dealership. I’ve had many an argument here. Good times.

But back to the issue. Do you think this kind of advertising should be allowed? The free-marketers will undoubtedly say “yes.” They’ll argue that Motor Vehicle Services has a right to free speech. And maybe it does, but is it also allowed to reshape a few facts in order to sell its products?

I keep thinking about my grandmother. She would have called the number.

Should a company be allowed to send out advertisements that look like government notices?

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(* No, it isn’t.)

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