NEW HARMONY, Utah — In 2015, Devon Anderson was driving his motorhome from Las Vegas to visit family in southern Utah.
He pulled his motorhome off the interstate to buy ice at a Texaco station in New Harmony, a small town located between St. George and Cedar City.
“I was getting ready to get out of the car, and I seen this guy walking down along the side my truck. He says, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’ve got cracks in your tires.’”
Anderson couldn’t see any cracks.
“I says, ‘Do they look bad to you?’ He says, ‘Oh, they’re bad.’ I figured, well, he’s a tire man, he knows what he’s talking about," Anderson continued.
The man worked for Freeway Tire — a repair shop on the grounds of the gas station. The employee convinced Anderson to buy two tires for $600.
But when Anderson received the receipt, his credit card was charged $1,121.54.
“If they tell you one price,” Anderson said, “and they charge you something else, that’s not right.”
A Utah judge last month ruled that Freeway Tire broke the state’s consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the price of tires and shocks to Anderson and three other customers. The judge ordered the business to pay $20,000 in fines.
Its owner, Michael Heath, has denied breaking the law. He says his mechanics use a practice called “merchandising the island.” He learned it decades ago when his father owned Chevron stations.
“Chevron encouraged the attendant,” Heath testified in the trial, “to go check the oil, check the air filter, check their belts, check their tires. If they need something, if the need's there, you sell them something.”
Fifth District Court Judge Matthew Bell noted that the Freeway Tire mechanics are paid on commission. He said that gave the mechanics incentive to commit illegal conduct.
At trial, there was testimony about one Freeway Tire employee who flagged down a driver on Interstate 15. The employee told the driver, who was towing a travel trailer with Montana plates, that his wheel was wobbling and about to fall off.
Freeway Tire later sold him new shocks.
“And how much does it show you charged him for those shocks?” Assistant Utah Attorney General Robert Wing asked at trial.
“$738,” Heath replied.
Wing: “And you paid $84 for them?”
Heath: “I believe so.”
Wing: “So, you had an 800%, more than 800% mark up?”
Heath: “That could be.”
The judge said the conduct went on for years and targeted drivers far from home who were often elderly.
The gas station beside Freeway Tire is now a Shell franchise. Heath is still the owner.
His attorney, James Jensen, issued a statement saying they were disappointed in the judge’s findings.
“My client believes he has complied with the administrative regulations,” Jensen wrote, “and intends to make vigorous efforts for future compliance with those regulations.”
At trial, the state called a technician from recreational vehicle dealer as an expert witness. The technician from Motor Sportsland in Salt Lake City was asked to testify about what repairs are actually needed on such trailers. Company spokesman Andrew Brown said in an interview with FOX 13 that, for the most part, if you can’t see a problem, there probably isn’t one.
“But you also need to pay attention to abnormalities,” Brown said. “You know, if your RV’s making a noise that’s not normal or there’s a vibration or something like that, then it may be something you want to have somebody look at.”
Freeway Tire isn’t the first auto repair business accused of defrauding customers. In 2015, the Utah Division of Consumer Protection cited a tire shop in Scipio and one in Beaver for overcharging customers for unnecessary repairs.
Like in the New Harmony case, the drivers tended to be senior citizens from out of state driving motorhomes or towing trailers. The drivers in those cases got their money back when the businesses agreed to a settlement.
But almost six years later, Anderson is still waiting for someone to pay back the money he feels Freeway Tire owes him.
“I’ve never received a dime from them,” Anderson said. “I think they should offer reimbursement, a little bit.”
Brown offered some more advice on how to avoid unnecessary repairs:
- If the suggested repairs don’t sound right to you, get a second opinion, or consult with your warrant or insurance companies.
- Ask the repair company to itemize the costs in writing and to justify each line.
- Ask if the repairs are guaranteed.
Anyone who has experienced what they believe may be unfair treatment by a business can file a complaint with Utah's Division of Consumer Protection or the Better Business Bureau.