MADISON, Wis. (Aug. 9, 2000)—Team Tires Plus Ltd. has agreed to pay the state of Wisconsin $37,647 in civil forfeitures and assessments for allegedly recommending unnecessary auto repairs and keeping inadequate records.
The fines culminated an investigation started by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection against Tires Plus in 1999, according to Glen Loyd, the department´s public information officer.
Burnsville, Minn.-based Tires Plus agreed to pay the civil penalties under a settlement filed in Dane County Circuit Court. The company denies any wrongdoing.
In 1998, Wisconsin´s Consumer Protection received a complaint from a Sun Prairie, Wis., man who took his Mercedes Benz to a Tires Plus store in Madison to purchase new tires. After a free safety inspection, the outlet´s technician recommended that the customer replace the car´s shock absorbers—a repair he had already done on the car a week earlier.
The state issued a special order against Tires Plus in January, 1999, and ordered the dealership to obey Wisconsin automotive statutes. When more consumers filed complaints against Tires Plus, Consumer Protection decided to perform an undercover investigation, Mr. Loyd said.
An agent took a car with cupped tires to 12 of Tires Plus´ 24 Wisconsin outlets, he said. Prior to the undercover visits, the state hired a mechanic to install new struts to the car and sandblast those struts to make them appear worn.
The probe lasted from June through August, 2000, Mr. Loyd said. Of the stores visited by the agent, four—located in Madison, Oak Creek, Waukesha and Green Bay—recommended replacing the struts.
Each of the stores gave the investigator different estimates for strut replacement—in Madison, it was $430; Oak Creek, $339; Waukesha, $448; and the Green Bay outlet recommended a $475 replacement, including new tie rods.
"When you take a car in, and something is in good working order but somebody recommends a replacement, we´re not going to tolerate that in Wisconsin," Mr. Loyd said.
However, all the Tires Plus stores did follow guidelines outlined by the Motorist Assurance Program and tried to find out the car´s history from the undercover agent, said Daryl Blomberg, Tires Plus vice president of customer service. The agent´s response was that she had only owned the car for a month and didn´t know anything about the struts.
Mr. Blomberg said he doesn´t "entirely disagree" with the outlets´ recommendations since cupped tires could indicate a strut problem. He noted that the Waukesha store´s mechanics told the investigator that they hadn´t found any problems with the struts but because the tires were cupped she may want to replace the struts as "a measure of improved performance."
However, Mr. Blomberg admitted the mechanics from the four stores cited didn´t take the undercover car for a test drive and feel how the struts´ performance.
The probe also uncovered other statutory violations within the Tires Plus stores. Less than one-third of the fines the dealership must pay is due to recommending unnecessary repairs, Mr. Blomberg said. Most of the penalties are for record-keeping violations.
In Wisconsin, auto repair shops are required to have their associates sign work orders as well as write down the car´s mileage, license plate number and record other details, Mr. Blomberg explained. He said Tires Plus was ignorant of these regulations.
"They presented us with these technical violations that we were absolutely wrong on," he said. "There´s a number of things we didn´t know."
Those infractions are punishable by statute with a minimum penalty of $100 and maximum of $10,000 per violation, according to Mr. Blomberg. Tires Plus was unaware of most of these statutory violations until recent meetings with the Consumer Protection department, he said.
Still, though the state didn´t reveal the extent of its undercover investigation to Tires Plus until the recent settlement, the dealership felt it was best to comply and move on, Mr. Blomberg said.
"We thought it penny wise and foolish to pursue the semantics and issues on (Wisconsin´s) allegations of the unnecessary repairs," Mr. Blomberg said. "Instead, they were willing to be cooperative on those technical violations, and we opted to settle to prevent litigation on those issues."
In addition to the penalties, Tires Plus also agreed to implement corrective action so that all auto repairs met Wisconsin standards, according to Mr. Loyd. The dealership also will provide additional training for its employees and perform its own undercover check ups on how well the outlets are complying, he said.
The company acknowledged it has turned over management and some technicians at the stores that were cited, but that those replacements occurred before the state handed down the civil penalties, Mr. Blomberg said.
With 140 stores nationwide, Tires Plus recently agreed to merge with Morgan Tire & Auto Inc. Combined, the two dealerships will operate 540 stores and expect to post $525 million in sales for 2000.