By Russ and Tiña De Maris
It’s the stuff that could make you regret hitting the road. Here you are, in the “middle of nowhere” with your rig, and something goes wrong. Or at least that’s what someone tells you. For Devon Anderson, the bad news came from a tire man at a little gas station in southern Utah. “Oh, my gosh! You’ve got cracks in your tires!” Anderson couldn’t see any cracks, but he took the man’s word for it – after all, he was a tire specialist, right? Anderson quickly became the victim of a roadside rip-off. Could it happen to you?
Tire cracks and wobbling wheels in Utah
For Devon Anderson, what was to be a replacement of two tires for $600 turned into a credit card charge of $1,124.54. He still only got two tires out of the deal. And Anderson wasn’t the only guy on the receiving end of a roadside rip-off. There was the RVer from Montana, traveling through the same area where Anderson was “had.” This man was cruising down I-15 when somebody flagged him down. His bad news? ‘You’ve got a wheel wobbling – it’s about to fall off!’ The concerned “Good Sam” told him he should bring the rig straight over to the station and have it looked at. This time, the victim was sold new shock absorbers. To the tune of $738.
Earlier this month, in a Utah courtroom, an assistant state attorney general questioned the owner of the shop that performed those “repairs.” How much did they charge the customer for the shocks? $738. And how much did the shop pay for the shocks? $84. “So,” asked the attorney. “You had an 800%, more than 800% mark up?” Answered one Michael Heath, the shop owner, “That could be.”
“Merchandising the island”
Heath, the owner of Freeway Tire, a shop associated with Shell, is located in New Harmony, Utah. Heath was not apologetic about any of it. He told the court that his mechanics were simply “merchandising the island,” a practice he claims Chevron taught his father, a gas station owner, before him. It’s a simple matter of taking a close look at a customer’s vehicle, and if finding anything amiss, recommending a repair or replacement.
The judge disagreed. When ordering Michael Heath to pay $20,000 in fines, he found Heath guilty of violating Utah consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the price of tires and shocks – not just to Anderson, but to three other customers as well. But apparently Heath was not a newcomer to the roadside rip-off scheme.
Pressured to buy what they never needed
According to an investigative report by the Salt Lake Tribune, back in 2005 over in Elko County, Nevada, the local sheriff had likewise been tipped off to roadside rip-off allegations against a Shell station in Wells, Nevada. A long stream of motorists complained they’d been pressured to buy tires and parts that it turned out they never needed. A sting operation was put into motion, sending in plainclothes folks. The first one went in with local plates on their vehicle and came away unscathed. But the next rig sent in had Idaho plates. This transaction turned out far differently.
Once at the station, the “bait” asked attendants to check her tire pressure and oil. By the time employees were done with her, they told her three of the car’s tires were unsafe. She ended up buying two tires at $159.95 each. Employees said they were built buy a “Goodyear affiliate,” and that Goodyear stood behind them. When detectives (covering themselves with a search warrant) got the two “bad” tires from the station, another tire dealer said there was at least 3,000 to 5,000 miles worth of tread left. A Goodyear dealer said the replacement tires were definitely not Goodyear tires, and priced equivalent tires at $106 each.
Locals avoid it
The owner of the station of this Wells, Nevada, roadside rip-off? Michael Heath. Another out-of-towner “taken” by Heath’s sharp practices drove himself into the Wells city hall to complain. Outside of city hall was a group of city employees, who eyeballed the car’s out-of-state plates. Barely had he opened his mouth, the employees just said, “Shell station?” According to the Salt Lake Tribune report, locals avoid the station like the plague, and truck drivers warned one another via C.B. radio to steer clear of the place.
Maybe the pickings got too slim, because later, Michael Heath relocated to his present, Harmony, Utah, location. But the court judgment issued this month wasn’t Heath’s first run-in with Utah law. The Tribune reports that even before this episode, Heath had been charged by Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection of “untrue representations,” and failing to “clearly state the costs of goods sold,” in a 2017 citation. A few months later, in August 2017, the agency issued another citation, this time alleging nine counts of consumer code violations – some while Freeway Tire was busy defending the first citation.
Not an aberration
Sad to say, New Harmony’s Heath is not just a strange aberration in an otherwise road-safe state. A few years back, this writing team had pulled into a Walmart parking lot in St. George, Utah, not too far from New Harmony. Relaxing in our travel trailer, we were a bit startled when a man in a mechanic’s uniform rapped on our door. He urged us to come outside, as he said, while he was walking by, that he noticed a real problem with our trailer suspension system. We wouldn’t get too far down the road, he said, before we’d have real problems. But it would be an easy fix, just bring the rig over to the shop he worked at – not far from Walmart.
Our own roadside rip-off alarm sensors immediately went to high alert. We pulled out of the Walmart parking lot – and drove right on past the recommended shop. We went across town to an RV repair facility, and they found – to no great surprise – nothing wrong with our suspension system.
Beaver’s not better
And what about the story of a friend of ours, Connie G.? Connie is a single RVer, a full-timer. She generally summers in Wyoming and winters in Quartzsite. After a few years of acquaintance, she expressed concerns about her rig’s roadability, as she was getting ready to make the flip-side back to Wyoming. When we asked why the concern, she said she’d just had so many problems with tires and suspension parts, and was fearful maybe she’d have it happen again.
Connie showed us a stack of receipts from a shop in Beaver, Utah. On several passes through Beaver, she’d had occasion to stop at this shop. At nearly every stop, the shop “found” something wrong. We analyzed the prices for the work done. Even if it were true that the “somethings” were truly wrong, the prices she was charged for both parts and labor could seemingly bankrupt the economy of some small nations. On one occasion, the outfit had “replaced” her fifth-wheel’s suspension equalizers – for hundreds of dollars. Oddly enough, those same equalizers themselves “needed” replacing less than three years later for an equally exorbitant price.
Avoiding the roadside rip-off
How can you avoid the trap of the roadside rip-off? Being an informed consumer is critical. First, when things go “wrong” with your rig, you’ll probably know something’s wrong without a friendly salesman telling you. Does the steering feel “wrong”? Is the rig swaying, bouncing, or otherwise acting in a way that you’re not accustomed to? New, strange noises are another tip-off that something needs attention. Keeping an eye on your gauges and knowing typical operating ranges will put you on the alert if things start to drift out of range.
And if somebody helpful warns you that you “really need to get this fixed,” by all means, thank them for their concern. Then find a second opinion before you have anything done. When a shop offers you an estimate, make sure the estimate is in writing. Each item should be clearly detailed with a cost. Then question every line as to why such a thing is truly necessary.
Your “roadside assistance” group may not be your friend
And watch out for this other roadside rip-off. Let’s say you blow a tire on your motorhome, so you call your tow service. They’ll be more than happy to send a technician, and a tire. You’ll be covered! All you need to do is pay them the cost of the tire. An actually honest tire shop owner in Wells, Nevada, told us a story. He said he got a phone call from a big-name RV roadside assistance dispatcher. The company had a member stuck beside the road north of Ely with a blown tire. Did they have the correct tire? Surely they did, and said they could send a tech out right away. “Do not,” said the dispatcher, “discuss the price of the tire with the customer.” The shop owner was told they would get a check from the roadside assistance company, and that was all that was needed.
Later in the day, a motorhome pulled up in front of the shop. An extremely IRATE RVer climbed down from the rig and proceeded to read the shop owner up and down. Never, said the RVer, had he ever paid so much for a tire. He quite unpolitely told the shop owner what he thought of his personality, and perhaps his maternal origins. The shop owner then asked, just how much did the dispatch service charge him? On learning the price, he advised the man that he should think about disputing the charges with his credit card company, as the price the service charged him far exceeded the amount of the cost of the tire the shop had put on – in multifold amounts. In this case, the roadside assistance program was lining its pockets at the expense of a trapped member.
Bottom line advice
Bottom line, if you do have a problem that requires someone bring you a tire, a battery, etc., you may do well to call a tire shop in range of your breakdown. Ask what it would cost to have the tire shop come and do the job. Then call your assistance dispatcher and get a direct quote. It may be that you’ll be better off dealing with a shop on your own. Beware the roadside rip-off. They want your money.