MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Due to shortcomings of the public transit system in Memphis, many people need access to a car to keep a job. Leaders often say they want to fix the issue, but it leads many to the used car industry instead.
Demario Kilpatrick is one of those people; when he called the Problem Solvers, he was walking three miles each way to work every day.
He’s tired, and the soles of his shoes have ripped.
“Oh Lord, it’s so hard. I’m about to cry,” he said while standing on his mother’s porch in South Memphis.
When he got his tax return, he decided to buy a car. He checked Facebook and found a car for which he could afford the down payment at Gaston Auto Sales. Kilpatrick put down $1,000 and signed a contract for a used Nissan Sentra with 135,000 miles.
But soon after he bought it, he said it stopped working.
He called Gaston Auto Sales, who offered to help him get it fixed. But that was the last Kilpatrick ever saw of his car, and he’s not alone.
WREG found similar complaints made to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance and the Better Business Bureau.
In 14 unanswered complaints to the BBB, people said things like “the car broke down within a week” and their “car wouldn’t start” three days after buying it.
In many of the cases, people said the shop offered to fix it just like they did with Kilpatrick, but they never got the cars back.
In fact, WREG even covered a story last year where the owner and two employees were arrested during a dispute.
“They upped guns on us,” a witness said. “My son had just got his car two weeks ago. It was not time for a payment, and they came and [repossessed] his car.”
The WREG Problem Solvers could not find evidence the case was later prosecuted.
“If you read other people’s experiences and then read the fact that the used car dealer is not responding to complaints and then take a step further, read peoples reviews, you can learn a lot,” said Daniel Irwin with the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South, which gives Gaston Auto Sales an “F” rating.
For the industry as a whole, he said the BBB has gotten more than 650 complaints about used car dealers in the last 18 months. It ranks higher than industries including online purchases (503) and apartment rentals (30) in the same time period.
Irwin stressed the importance of doing research up front.
“Used car dealers regularly make the top 10 industries for BBB complaints. The most common complaints are cars being sold as-is and shortly after the purchase the car falling apart,” he said.
Kilpatrick’s contract stated he’d take the car “as is.” He said that did make him weary but not enough to stop his purchase.
“It did, but it didn’t because I’ve bought another car that was as is,” he said. “It was as is but never gave me a problem.”
“Lemon laws vary from state to state. In Tennessee, the lemon law doesn’t apply to used cars, only new cars,” Irwin said.
The Problem Solvers went to Gaston’s Airways location to try to ask them about the status of Kilpatrick’s car. The gate was locked and no one would come out.
Instead, Gaston Auto Sales had their attorney contact the Problem Solvers. Laura Smittick sent an email stating their client sent Kilpatrick’s vehicle to a third party mechanic who diagnosed the problem, but the customer refused to pay any more than his down payment.
In addition, the lawyer said “at no point did Gaston Auto Sales do anything illegal, wrong or unethical.”
When a past customer filed a complaint with the state, owner Timothy Gaston defended his product by putting the onus on the customer; “the vehicle had to be jump started just so [the customer] could drive the car off the lot.”
“If it’s not in the contract, it’s not going to be taken care of. You want to make sure before you sign anything everything you say is going to be in that contract,” Irwin said.
Kilpatrick has learned his lesson in a frustrating way.
“I’m mad. I’m sad. I’m hurt,” he said. “Do your reviews, look into car lots, do thorough background checks.”
The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance did not take disciplinary action against Gaston Auto.