The come-on is alluring. In the backs of magazines and newspapers, in the dark corners of the Internet and the upright font of the Yellow Pages, auto-transport companies promise to pick up customers' cars in one state and drop them off in another. Safe and cheap.
At least that's what Gary Niebish thought when he decided to relocate his family from California to his native Pennsylvania in December 2002. It was a big move for Niebish, his wife and their two small children. To ease matters the Niebishes paid the Lake St. Louis-based All Aboard Auto Transport Inc. $1,600 to transport both their 1994 Lexus GS 300 and their 2000 Infiniti QX4 across the country.
"Everything seemed to be fine," says Niebish, a sales consultant for large technology firms. All Aboard estimated it would take seven to ten business days to ship the cars. The Lexus was the first to go; seven days later, the Infiniti would follow. "They went through and documented every scrape, nick and cranny that you could ever imagine wrong with the vehicles."
Then the troubles began. The Infiniti SUV arrived first. "The [safari] grill was bent all the way out," says Niebish, who documented the damage while his car was still on the rig. "The Lexus finally showed up 25, maybe 27 days later."
The damage to the Infiniti's grill was estimated at $1,100. But when Niebish tried to get All Aboard Auto Transport to pay the lion's share of the repair, the company stonewalled him. "They were so evasive and so slow in trying to get back to me," recalls Niebish. "I probably sent [All Aboard co-owner Lloyd Jackson] about six or seven letters. I was even sending registered mail and he was neglecting to pick it up. He would say: 'Oh, well, I have to go get the letter. Call me back in a week.' I'd call him back in a week. 'I haven't really gotten around to it.' He was very elusive. Then he decided, after about three months of us going back and forth, that, you know, 'I'm not going to pay you.'"
Gary Niebish's experience is hardly unique. "I wouldn't say they're all shady companies," says Michelle L. Corey, president of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. "But it is an industry in which we've seen an inordinate number of complaints come through regarding damage and lack of reimbursement."
The problems have become so commonplace that the Better Business Bureau two months ago issued an advisory urging consumers to use caution when contracting with auto-transport services. Customers complain that these firms rarely guarantee a delivery date for vehicles. The firms' estimated time frames are rarely adhered to, and customers must often pay a deposit, which -- even if the service has not been provided -- the company keeps when the customer cancels the contract.
But here's the real kicker: Not only do the companies frequently damage cars during transport, but when customers go looking for reimbursement, the companies often balk.
Such practices have earned All Aboard Auto Transport eleven consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau in the past year. The organization recently downgraded the firm's record to "unsatisfactory" for failure to respond to consumer complaints.
All Aboard Auto Transport is not alone. On July 9, 2004, the office of Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon won a permanent injunction against Chipmunk Auto Logistics, a St. Peters-based auto-transport firm. In that case, Chipmunk Auto Logistics and its owner, Caren Vinson, were found guilty of failing to deliver vehicles within a certain time frame and failing to tell customers that their deposits were nonrefundable. Chipmunk was ordered to stop doing business and was fined $10,000 by St. Charles Circuit Judge Lucy D. Rauch. Similarly, the Wood River, Illinois-based Arrow Auto Transport Systems was found guilty of the same practices on November 20, 2003. That company was ordered to cease operations and pay $20,000 in restitution.
So far the attorney general's office has filed no charges against All Aboard Auto Transport, whose owners insist their business practices are sound.
"We're just a small business trying to make ends meet, just like everybody else," says co-owner Lloyd Jackson. The auto transporter insists that even though business has been bad, his firm has paid or is in the process of paying all legitimate claims. "If you hauled anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 vehicles a year and you'd done that for six years, and in the last two years you'd had fifteen complaints -- that's way under, way under, 1 percent -- does that seem like fairness?"
Jackson insists that a lack of cash flow and recent labor problems involving truckers are to blame for his company's late payment -- and, in some cases, nonpayment -- of customers. He says business has been so bad lately that he was forced to close All Aboard Auto Transport and reopen under another name, which he declines to identify. Jackson also maintains he sometimes gets "bogus" claims: "The insurance companies don't pay for that, and we can't either."
That is cold comfort to Mary Catania, who claims the rear bumper of her 2000 Honda Civic was damaged when she hired the firm for $850 to ship her car from Delaware to California in August 2003.
"It's a really shady business," says Catania, who claims her Honda arrived in San Diego two weeks after the company said it would. "I thought they were legit, but [after I filed my claim] I talked to the owner a lot. His name was Lloyd [Jackson]. He always blew me off. Every time I'd call him he would just say, 'We're investigating it.' This and that, like, 'We'll get back to you.' He never would. This went on for, like, months."
After six months of haggling, All Aboard finally agreed to pay Catania $412.19 -- nearly $200 less than her lowest repair estimate. Even then, Catania says, All Aboard took its time getting a check to her. "I kept waiting for the check to come in the mail," she says. "[Jackson] kept saying he needed to check with his accountant to see if they have the money. Then he told me that they don't have the money because their business isn't doing too well. I was like, 'I don't care -- find the money.'"
Catania finally received her first and only check from the company -- for $100 -- on June 10, 2004, almost a year after filing her original claim.
That's one better than Terrence Becker, who paid All Aboard $975 to ferry his 1998 Audi A4 from New Jersey to California in May 2003. "During shipping they had somehow dumped a bunch of oil or gasoline onto my car and into the air-conditioning intake system that made the whole car smell like gasoline," recalls Becker. He adds that his car also had multiple scratches.
Soon after receiving his damaged Audi, Becker filed a claim with All Aboard Auto Transport, asking its owners to reimburse him for $300 of an estimated $1,200 worth of damage. "There was a long process of me talking to a guy in the office named Lloyd who'd say, 'Yeah, we've received the forms but didn't get to look at it.' I would call back the next day: 'Oh, it's on the top of my list for today,'" recounts Becker. "It just went on for weeks and weeks of him saying he was going to look at it."
Ultimately the company denied Becker's appeal, arguing that "claims not noted on delivery will not be accepted," and the company "will not be responsible for... damage caused by leaking fluids."
Like most customers who live out of state, the amount of Becker's claim was outweighed by the costs of hiring an attorney or traveling to Missouri. Becker ate the loss, like many customers who've brought claims against the company. He says: "Sure, I could spend a couple hundred bucks to get a lawyer to write a letter, but who knows?"