Shopping for a new car can sometimes be a stressful, confusing and even a high-pressure situation. But one Gainesville dealership may have gone beyond just loud advertisements and aggressive salesmen — it may be violating state laws.
Over the last two years the Alachua County branch of Seniors vs. Crime, a program of the Florida attorney general’s office, has settled nine cases on behalf of car buyers against Gatorland Toyota, a dealership on Main Street in Gainesville.
To date, the organization has recovered nearly $92,000 for Gatorland customers, said John Caravella, manager of the Alachua county office of Seniors vs. Crime.
Case files collected by Seniors vs. Crime and examined by WUFT News tell similar stories: elderly people visiting Gatorland Toyota and leaving with overpriced new cars.
These resolutions weren’t settled in court, but are “customer satisfaction reimbursements,” as lawyers representing Gatorland Toyota and its parent company, Gettel Enterprises, told Seniors vs. Crime.
The trend has not gone unnoticed. According to Caravella, two salesmen and the sales manager have been fired from Gatorland and are now reportedly working at a Toyota dealership in the Atlanta area. The dealership’s general manager has reportedly been replaced as well.
WUFT News reached out to attorneys representing Gatorland’s parent company, Gettel Enterprises, several months ago, earlier this month and again this week. They did not return calls regarding the issue. Managers at the dealership itself did not return repeated calls either. Officials at Gettel Automotive in Sarasota directed inquiries to the Gatorland Toyota general manager, who did not respond to repeated attempts at contact.
One case, according to Seniors vs. Crime records, started on June 5, 2010, when an 81-year-old Gainesville woman brought her 1995 Toyota Camry into Gatorland Toyota for service.
The woman, who was interviewed by WUFT News and asked not to be identified by her real name, visited the dealership with no intention of buying a new car that day.
While she was waiting for her car to be serviced, a salesman approached her. He asked if she had seen the new 2011 Camry, and she said she told him she didn’t want to see a new car.
Nonetheless, he began showing her a high-end model Camry XLE and convinced her to take a test drive.
“At the end, the very end, he asked me to sign…and I signed,” she said.
Not only was the woman convinced to purchase a car she had no intention of buying, but the final contract was nearly $4,000 above the sticker price for the standard model Camry delivered. The woman was charged around the suggested price of the higher model XLE she test drove, but did not receive.
According to Florida statutes, it’s illegal for a dealer to add any costs to a car without disclosing them.
That’s when the Alachua county office of Seniors vs. Crime became involved in the case. Caravella and his office helped the woman settle with Gatorland, and she was reimbursed $7,000 in April 2012.
Since that time, Seniors vs. Crime reports eight more resolved cases from Gatorland Toyota. Officials with the group said they believe there are more people who may not even know they are victims.
“Frankly, our organization isn’t that well known in the community, so to think that we have these types of cases from one dealership, leads at least me to believe that there may be others out there that would want to come forward now that they know there’s a way to,” Caravella said.
Manuel Godina is another one of those victims from the case files.
The 76-year-old Gainesville resident, speaks mostly Spanish and bought a Toyota at Gatorland. He ended up paying $10,000 more than the retail price of the car. Godina was talked into the sale after signing paperwork in English, which is not his first language.
“These are not bad judgment business practices, they’re illegal,” Brian Johnson, Godina’s son-in-law, said.
Johnson said when he heard how much his father-in-law paid for the car, he knew something was fishy and he contacted Seniors vs. Crime.
“We were just dumbfounded at the whole thing…that someone could literally take advantage of people in such a disastrous way without conscience,” Johnson said.
Seniors vs. Crime helped resolve and settle Godina’s case, but with incidents like this, often the elderly victims don’t even tell their families once they realize what’s happened.
Caravella says the majority of people who come through his office often feel naïve for having fallen victim.
“And we try to tell them to not feel embarrassed…let’s go over the facts and let’s see what happened and try and resolve this,” Caravella said.
So far, that path of resolution has spanned more than a year.
Alachua County and Gatorland Toyota isn’t the only place where this type of predatory business practices have been happening, officials said.
“We’ve worked cases in Ocala; we’ve worked cases here in Gainesville,” said Barbara Thomas, regional director for Seniors vs. Crime. “I think we’ve had cases in Leesburg. I’m not familiar with all the cases throughout the whole state of Florida, but I’m sure it probably happens throughout the whole state.”
After being contacted by the local Senior vs. Crime office, the Gainesville Police Department launched its own investigation into the activity at Gatorland Toyota.
But GPD Spokesman Ben Tobias said the investigation has not turned up anything conclusive or anything within the department’s jurisdiction.
“As for now, the original complaints that have come into us…we have looked at a criminal aspect…we didn’t find anything criminal, but that doesn’t mean that the book is completely closed,” Tobias said.
The attorney general’s office is currently investigating a case involving Gatorland Toyota, but officials would not comment while they investigate.
If you have any information about these practices, whether you’re a victim yourself or not, you’re encouraged to contact the Seniors vs. Crime office.
Seniors vs. Crime Tips for Protecting Yourself When Purchasing a New Vehicle
The points below can relate to purchasing a new car, Caravella said.
- Test drive the vehicle you intend to purchase.
- Ensure the federally required new car label (Monroney Label) is affixed to the vehicle you intend to purchase.
- Compare the written sale contract’s price for the vehicle to the manufacturer’s TOTAL price listed on the Monroney Label.
- Do not accept any charges or fees on the sale contract that come from a dealer-applied new car window sticker, which is not a Monroney Label, or fees that any non-manufacturer has printed on the Monroney Label.
- Ensure that all extra costs in excess of the Monroney Label’s TOTAL price for the vehicle are disclosed in writing on the sale contract.
- Do not sign a sale contract that contains any blank lines or is missing a Grand Total cost.
- Do not allow the dealer to remove the Monroney Label until you have formally purchased the vehicle; and then retain it with your records.