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Suit moves against auto anti-theft program

ALBANY -- A federal lawsuit claiming an upstate auto dealer's discontinued anti-theft program was misleading and nearly useless is moving ahead just as new data show that the number of car thefts continues to plummet, largely thanks to technology.

The program involved etching vehicle identification numbers on car windows and was similar to those still sold by some other dealers.

The lawsuit seeks to recover the $295 that Heidi Seekamp paid for Fuccillo Automotive Group's "Auto Theft Security Discount Guarantee" when she bought her Hyundai Elantra in 2007, plus similar payments by thousands of others who bought it since 2003. Trial is scheduled for October.

The company said the window-etching helps deter theft. It has discontinued the program, which provided $2,000 toward the purchase of a new vehicle should the original get stolen within three years and be declared a total loss.

"There's some debate out there about the usefulness of the etches because they can be removed. We don't think they're particularly valuable," said attorney Sergei Lemberg, who has a motion pending to designate Seekamp as lead plaintiff and himself as lead attorney in the class-action suit. "The policies in a lot of ways duplicate the insurance people already have."

Lemberg estimates that 3,900 to 14,000 consumers are affected and said there may have been only one claim ever made.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn last year rejected the dealer's motion to dismiss Seekamp's lawsuit alleging the program was deceptively sold as a warranty and in fact was a kind of insurance with "a grossly inflated premium," which neither Fuccillo nor administrator Universal Automotive Services was authorized to sell in New York.

Under state law, the plaintiffs are seeking triple damages for three years of the claims plus attorney fees and costs.

According to the lawsuit, a vehicle identification number must be permanently marked in 18 places on every car sold in the United States, then registered with the state, the buyer's insurer and, if stolen, an FBI database.

Also, many dealers will etch the VIN in a car's windows at customers' request for $20 or $30, Lemberg wrote.

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