St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 8, 2012 - The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning car owners to be cautious when dealing with Automotive Service Protection, a South St. Louis County company that sells vehicle repair plans.
The BBB says the company has been using a misleading New York-based website to generate leads for its salespeople. The website claimed to be an unbiased “independent consumer advocate group” that uses a variety of criteria to rank firms that sell auto repair plans. But instead of offering consumers a list of independent companies, the site directs all callers to sales agents with Automotive Service Protection.
Two former employees said they left Automotive Service Protection earlier this year, in part because they were concerned about the company’s questionable marketing practices. One of the former employees said when he asked about the company’s use of the site, company owner Joshua Freeman told him: “Everybody does it.”
Freeman, of Barnhart, Mo., is listed with the Missouri secretary of state as organizer and registered agent for Automotive Service Protection. The company has used addresses in the 4100 block of Crescent Drive, near Lindbergh Boulevard and Interstate 55.
Freeman told the BBB that the website, CarProtectionReviews.com, is operated by Greg Laptevsky of New York. Freeman said that Laptevsky is responsible for the website’s contents and no one at Automotive Service Protection ever intended to use the site to mislead anyone.
“I want to disassociate myself with this,” Freeman said. “I want no part of this. It never occurred to me that people would think, ‘these people are trying to screw me.’ It never crossed my mind.”
Freeman called the site, “just a source for us to generate additional leads.” He acknowledged that phone calls to any of the businesses listed on the website are answered by employees of his company.
Freeman told the BBB that the site had provided “a good return on our investment. That’s why we kept it.” But he told the BBB he now wants his company taken off the site. “It’s not worth the headache,” he said.
Use of the phony consumer site is the latest in a series of questionable sales and marketing methods tied to the extended vehicle service industry. Law enforcement officials in Missouri and other states have criticized several industry members in the past for misleading mailings that claimed a consumer’s auto manufacturer’s or dealer warranty had expired or was about to expire, when that was not the case. Some businesses also have been chastised for offering “bumper to bumper” warranties when some mechanical breakdowns were not covered. The BBB has issued past public alerts citing companies for using other deceptive sales practices, including an alert on one company that sent fake recall notices to car owners in an effort to get them to contact its sales office.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said use of the website to generate sales is troubling.
“Any company that feels it has to trick consumers to get their business does not deserve the public’s trust,” Corey said. “From every appearance, this is a fake consumer website that was set up deliberately to mislead and deceive people who are looking to buy auto repair contracts.”
The CarProtectionReviews.com site claimed last week that as a third party consumer advocate group, “we rate all companies using the same, stringent criteria without bias.” The website said its team of experts studied a variety of factors to determine a rating for each company. The factors include the aggressiveness of company representatives, membership in the BBB or similar organizations and the strength of the insurance company backing the contract.
The site was altered slightly this week after the BBB contacted Freeman and Laptevsky. But the site continued to say it rates service plan companies using such factors as years in business, membership in the BBB or similar organizations and strength of insurance backing the policies.
The site lists three “top rated” vehicle protection plan companies. Repair Service Plan Dealer was ranked No. 1 with five stars, Automotive Service Protection was ranked No. 2 with four stars and My Direct Protect was ranked No. 3, also with four stars.
A BBB investigation could find no evidence that either Repair Service Plan Dealer or My Direct Protect is a legitimate extended auto service contract company. Freeman acknowledged that My Direct Protect is a marketing company, not a firm that sells extended car repair plans.
Even though the review website makes it appear that the three businesses are unrelated, all three have been traced to the same South St. Louis County office complex.
The website for My Direct Protect lists an address at 4171 Crescent Drive, an address that also has been used by Automotive Service Protection. A salesperson answering a toll free phone number for Repair Service Plan Dealer said that company was located at 4167 Crescent Drive, another address used by Automotive Service Protection.
Laptevsky of New York did not offer any information to back up website claims that CarProtectionReviews.com used a team of experts to review and rank companies. But he said in an email response to questions that he will be making “site adjustments” to address BBB concerns. By Wednesday, the review site had been modified slightly. While the site continued to rate the same three companies, another part of the site had added a disclaimer saying the site “receives compensation for companies advertising on the website.”
Consumers have filed several complaints with the BBB against Automotive Service Protection in 2011 and 2012. Consumers claim they were not reimbursed for covered repairs, they could not get promised refunds, and company representatives were rude and unresponsive. The company has been responding to the complaints.
“We have had not one single issue with our marketing practices,” said Freeman.
The BBB offers the following advice to consumers looking for an extended auto service plan:
- Be cautious of websites or other marketing materials that purport to rank auto service plans. The materials may be nothing more than advertising gimmicks.
- Do not be pressured into making a hurried decision. Beware of solicitors offering reduced rates for a limited time only.
- Make sure you read any coverage contracts carefully, including requirements and exclusions, before buying. Remember that you are buying what is in the written contract, not oral promises from a salesperson.
- Check with a trusted mechanic to determine whether such a purchase is in your best interest.
- Check a company’s BBB Business Review by going to www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.
Contacts (News Media Only): Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-645-0606, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743, email@example.com, or Bill Smith, Trade Practice Investigator, 314-584-6727, firstname.lastname@example.org