Four big retailers may be sued by the Los Angeles city attorney for false advertising that allegedly caused shoppers to believe that they were buying thousands of products on a big discount, a report by Los Angeles Times showed.

JC Penney, Sears, Kohl’s and Macy’s are being accused of using a deceptive scale of “list” or “regular” prices, which was never used in reality, leading customers to believe that they were getting a better deal with the products on sale, the lawsuits to be filed Thursday reportedly said.

“Customers have the right to be told the truth about the prices they’re paying — and to know if a bargain is really a bargain,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement. This “false reference pricing” played “a major role in the companies’ overall marketing and business strategies.”

According to California law, companies are not allowed to state a higher original price unless it has been on sale for that price within three months of the offer being pushed out. The other case in which the higher price is allowed to be advertised is when the dates when that price was in effect are clearly mentioned.

The lawsuits cite examples from all four retailers. JC Penney reportedly began selling a maternity bathing suit top online for a “sale” price of $31.99 (down from an “original” price of $46) only to later pull down the price to $21.99 and then $14.99. In each case, however, the prices were compared to $46, when the product was never really for sale at that amount, the suit says.

A similar example is cited for Sears, which allegedly began selling a Kenmore washer for $999.99, down from $1,179.99 on the first day it appeared online in April, despite it never having been sold for over $999.99. The suit says Sears eventually discounted the item down to $649.99 while “falsely advertising a discount from the $1,179.99 false reference price.”

While JC Penney told LA Times that it “doesn’t comment on pending litigation,” Sears declined to comment, and Macy’s and Kohl’s did not respond to requests for comment on the suits that will seek civil penalties in addition to injunctions for the prohibition of such practices.

JC Penney
Signs announce a sale for “back to school” at a JC Penney Co. store in Westminster, Colorado, Aug. 14, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Wilking