On a winter day in 2016, Curt Albert was traveling Interstate 15 in Utah on his way to Arizona. Near New Harmony, another motorist drove up beside him and signaled him to pull over.
The other motorist, according to Albert and findings by an administrative law judge, was an employee of Freeway Tire in New Harmony. He said the right rear tire on Albert’s travel trailer was wobbling. Albert agreed to follow him to the tire shop for a repair.
“I don’t want to get stranded somewhere,” Albert recently explained. “It’s 25 degrees outside, and the wind’s blowing.”
But $1,018.10 later, Albert came to believe: “It was a scam.”
The Utah Division of Consumer Protection also has questioned what happened that day. In March, it ordered Freeway Tire to pay a fine of $27,500, though the agency offered to suspend $12,500 of that amount if Freeway Tire goes three years without violating Utah’s consumer protection laws and rules.
Freeway Tire plans to challenge the fine and the conclusions reached by the Division of Consumer Protection and an administrative law judge who presided over a hearing on the matter. Jim Jensen, an attorney for Freeway Tire, said the business owner plans to appeal to state court. As of Thursday, it appeared no such appeal had been filed.
Jensen, citing the pending appeal, declined to discuss the matter further.
It’s not the first time the state has accused an auto repair business along I-15 of misleading travelers about the condition of their tires or the parts that make them spin. In 2015, it fined a company that own tires shops in Scipio and Beaver $10,000 for violating consumer protection laws and rules.
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The allegations against the New Harmony shop are similar to what the state found in 2015 in a key way: The complainants are senior citizens who were driving RVs or towing trailers with out-of-state license plates.
Albert, now 62, and a retired police officer, was living in Panguitch when he was persuaded to pull into Freeway Tire on Jan. 10, 2016. The travel trailer he was towing had license plates from Montana.
The trailer was a 2015 model and had traveled only about 2,000 miles since Albert purchased it, according to documents The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through a public records request.
Albert, in an interview earlier this month, said he saw ”red flags” as soon as he arrived at Freeway Tire, which sits on the same lot as a Texaco station beside an I-15 ramp. The employee on the interstate told him the problem was the right rear tire, but Albert said a worker at the shop got underneath the left side.
That worker, Albert said, told him a shock was broken. It was best to replace all four of them, he told Albert.
Albert said the worker took him into the shop and showed him what he said were heavy-duty shock absorbers. Documents say the employee agreed to sell Albert four shocks for $738.
“Like any good con man, he was very convincing,” Albert said.
Freeway Tire is owned by Michael Heath, who has businesses in Utah and Nevada. According to the administrative law judge’s findings, Heath testified about his business practices and how he trains his employees.
One practice is what the judge, apparently quoting Heath, called ”merchandising the island.” It’s where the businessperson points out any defects in the vehicle to its owner to solicit repairs and replacement parts.
“The practice of ‘merchandising the island’ was something that Mr. Heath has done all of his business career,” the administrative law judge wrote, ”and he learned this ... technique from his father before him.”
With the service and tax, the bill came to $1,018.10. Albert used his credit card to pay the bill but believed he had been lied to.
“When I left there, I was mad at myself for being taken,” Albert said, “and that’s why I filed my complaint.”
According to findings from the administrative law judge, the shocks sold to Albert retail at NAPA stores for $29.79 apiece. And it’s not clear they were necessary at all. A service manager at a travel trailer dealership in Salt Lake City submitted testimony that shocks are of limited use on such trailers, and many of the trailers his dealership sells don’t have them.
Before filing his complaint with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, Albert called Freeway Tire and aired his grievances. The shop’s owner agreed to refund $500. Albert said he can get the rest of his money refunded if the fine and findings against Freeway Tire become final.
Albert isn’t the only person to complain about Freeway Tire.
The administrative law judge’s findings also cite a 78-year-old man from Las Vegas who was driving an RV. When he stopped to buy ice, an employee of Freeway Tire told him the front tires had cracks and should be replaced, according to the judge’s findings. The man eventually paid $1,121 for the two tires, equalizer bags, service, fees and taxes.
The administrative law judge found Freeway Tire made ”untrue” representations to Albert and failed to clearly state the costs of the goods and services to the Las Vegas driver.