An Auto-Warranty Scam Leads to a Solicitation Pileup

“They call right at bedtime, waking my children. I am so sick of them.”

Andrea Allen purchased a used 1999 Ford Windstar at a Toyota dealership in Puyallup about three years ago. It came with a one-year warranty from the manufacturer. So she was surprised when she recently started receiving daily phone calls, saying her warranty is about to expire and offering to sell her a new one. Allen says the callers refuse to identify the company they work for. In some cases, the voice on the other end is a computer recording; in others, a person begins by asking her to confirm the make and model of her car. Allen says she immediately asks to speak with a supervisor or be taken off the calling list, at which point the caller usually hangs up. Another call comes within a day or two. "I've begged, I've pleaded, and I've yelled [for them to stop calling] and still nothing," she says. "They call right at bedtime, waking my children. I am so sick of them." It may be more than an annoyance. Allen is likely the target of a scam that began to hit Washington a few weeks ago. According to Marcella Kallmann, spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau of Alaska, Oregon, and Western Washington, scam artists are calling, or mailing postcards to, drivers telling them their car's warranty is about to expire and offering an extended warranty. It's unclear whether the object is to collect money for a bogus service or to simply steal the driver's identity, or both. The calling has become so widespread, one of Kallmann's colleagues was even contacted at work with a car warranty offer. When informed that she had reached the Better Business Bureau, Kallmann says, "the person on the other end basically paused for a long time." The sale of extended car warranties is a legitimate business, but Kallmann believes the current wave of solicitations has the earmarks of a scam in part because when the recipient of a call requests a supervisor, they are either told no such person is available or the caller hangs up. There is also the harassing nature of the calls, Kallmann says. People lodging complaints with the Bureau's Seattle location say they have received solicitations as early as 3 a.m. and as late as 10 p.m. Kallmann says the Bureau isn't sure if the calls are coming from one place or several. Some of them are just computer recordings, Kallmann says, and often include an option to get off the calling list by giving a little bit of information. It's better to just hang up, she says, even if the calls continue. Ted Klarich, general manager of Burien Toyota, says warranty solicitations include accurate information about the customers and their cars—such as the model and make of the car they recently purchased—which leads customers to assume he sold sales information to solicitors. And they aren't happy about it. But Klarich insists that the only people who receive registration data from him are the Toyota corporate office and the state Department of Licensing. He adds that it's become such a problem, he used up valuable space in his recent mailer, called "Inside Edge," to warn customers about the scam. "It was so frustrating to watch," he says. So, where are the scammers getting personal car data? The Department of Licensing only gives out registration information to certain companies, and never for product solicitation, according to DOL spokesperson Brad Benfield. Parking lot operators, for instance, can use the info to ticket violators. Credit agencies and insurance companies also have access, as do data miners that provide market information to carmakers and dealers. The DOL currently has contracts with about 140 banks, lenders, and other agencies to provide all new-registration information on a regular basis. Benfield says these recipients are bound by the same state laws disallowing use of the information for solicitation or selling it to others who will use it for that purpose. But, he adds, in light of the current surge of calls from solicitors, the DOL is reviewing all the contracts. Figuring out who is behind the calls is difficult. The numbers showing up on Allen's caller ID are located across the country; recently Georgia, New Jersey, Michigan, and Colorado area codes have popped up. Allen began looking up the numbers on Web sites like www.whocalled.us and found other people reporting similar problems from solicitors calling from the same numbers. I called back all the ones still stored in Allen's caller ID. One led to a busy signal, another to a subprime mortgage lender that asked me to leave a message. Two went to a service that began by offering me the option to push 2 to be removed from their calling list. That, Kallmann warns, is the hallmark of a "vishing" scam, or identity theft by phone. Thomas Boulanger purchased a 1996 Camry from Burien Toyota (his employer) last November. He didn't bother with a warranty because of the car's age, but last week, two months after he bought the car, a postcard including information about the make and model of his car arrived. The return address was listed as Auto One Warranty. Auto One is located in Irvine, Calif., and is a subsidiary of Credexx, a loan consolidator. It caught the attention of the Better Business Bureau last year due to the high number of complaints about its warranty expiration notices and difficulty processing claims. The Bureau rated the company an F. According to Bureau records, the president of Auto One is David Tabb, 41, a man with a history of dicey consumer practices. Another of Tabb's companies, Hollywood Dreams, was listed at an address next door to Auto One. Hollywood Dreams was a company used as a front for selling sports and Hollywood memorabilia with forged signatures. In 2002 Tabb pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one count of tax evasion for his part in a scam to sell the forged merchandise. According to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court, Tabb arranged to meet an undercover federal agent at a Chevron gas station in Irvine to sell him basketballs and other sporting items with forged signatures and fake certificates of authenticity. He continued to sell undercover feds forged merchandise, usually in parking lots, over the next year. Tabb did not respond to messages left at his last known home number or Auto One offices. Investigation into the recent rash of car warranty solicitations in Washington, both by phone and mail, is just getting under way. But in the meantime, the best thing consumers can do to protect themselves, Kallmann says, is "just hang up." lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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