Flagstaff, Ariz. • The Federal Trade Commission is accusing an auto group in the U.S. Southwest of using deceptive and unlawful practices to sell vehicles to Navajos.
The complaint against Tate's Auto Group, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Arizona, says the company falsified consumers' monthly income and down payments on financing applications and contracts without them knowing. The complaint also says the company used deceptive advertising.
It's part of a push by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to protect Navajo consumers. The commission has been collecting information from tribal members about business practices in towns that border the reservation, which spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It issued a report in 2014 that showed more complaints were received about Tate's than other auto dealerships.
"The representation from the auto dealer is that 'we're helping your Navajo people,' " Leonard Gorman, executive director of the commission, said Thursday. "The reality is you're cheating our Navajo people."
Tate's Auto Group has dealerships in Show Low, Winslow and Holbrook, Arizona; and in Gallup, New Mexico. Owner Richard Berry said he was stunned by the complaint and rejected a settlement offer from the FTC earlier this year.
The company has safeguards in place to ensure it sells and services customers honestly and to the best of its ability, he said. "We are confident that we will be vindicated and appreciate the continued support of our community, staff and customers," Berry wrote in a statement.
Fraud reviews from third-party financing companies found that Tate's inflated customers' monthly incomes by hundreds or thousands of dollars, according to the complaint. One of those companies stopped doing business with Tate's in January 2016 after suffering financial losses when customers defaulted on loans or their vehicles had to be repossessed, the complaint states.
Tate's also misrepresented offers for vehicles and the terms to buy or lease them, the FTC says.
The commission is seeking relief that includes restitution and refunds to customers.
In another consumer protection case in federal court in New Mexico, a Navajo couple reached a $1 million settlement in a lawsuit against a Gallup, New Mexico, business that offered loans tied to tax returns. William and Sammia DeJolie had alleged that T&R businesses charged secret fees and hid true interest rates. The couple asked a judge this week to determine whether the settlement is fair and certify a group of about 14,950 people who could benefit from it.
Gorman said the dynamics of free enterprise in Western society often don't fit in with Navajo culture. Words are significant and important, taken at face value, he said. And on a reservation where banks are sparse and no car dealerships exist, extra time must be taken to ensure customers who often travel long distances — particularly limited English speakers — understand, he said.
Customers also have a responsibility, Gorman said. The commission has been educating Navajos about credit and financing. Navajos should assess their personal finances before heading to a car lot and be ready to say no and walk away if they don't like or understand the terms, he said.
They also should review agreements with the same diligence as purchasing livestock, something Navajo families have done for generations as part of a traditional lifestyle, Gorman said.
"When grandma purchases a sheep, she takes the time to assess the condition of that sheep," he said. "She'll look at the teeth, she'll massage the chest area of the sheep and grandma will make the decision. Is the sheep too old, too skinny?"
The FTC complaint highlights a need for economic development on the reservation where tribal laws cap interest rates at below those of neighboring states, ensuring fairness for the business and consumer, Gorman said.