(WSPA) – When a massive car company all of a sudden went belly up last month, 45,000 customers in the Southeast were left hanging.
American Car Center has filed for bankruptcy and the process has unearthed a lot of concerns from clients.
In this 7NEWS Consumer Exclusive, we hit the road to get answers for concerned and confused customers.
Before the mass closure in late February, most clients describe their experience with American Car Center (ACC) as mostly a smooth ride.
However, everything went downhill fast when the company with 50 dealerships across 10 southern states shuttered its doors, including the dealership in Greer, SC where Jordan Wilson got his car.
“I was waking up looking out the window thinking the repo truck was going to come any moment to get my car,” Wilson, who couldn’t figure out where to make payments for weeks and feared repossession, said.
7NEWS learned ACC’s lender and investors hired the firm Westlake Portfolio Management (WPM) to service all 45,000 customers.
Nevertheless, it took several weeks for many accounts to be transferred, leaving clients like Wilson confused.
“I called Westlake, they don’t have my account nowhere, so my account is in limbo now so I’m just sitting and waiting…It’s been impossible to pay but I’ve made attempts,” Wilson said.
Will late payers be penalized?
We took that concern to WPM and asked the company if customers who are past due because of the bankruptcy confusion would be penalized.
“I can’t speak for every single account as a blanket statement, but we are going to do our best to service all of the loans and not penalize customers for something that was not their fault,” according to Todd Laruffa with WPM.
By March 10, WPM said it had assumed all accounts.
That means clients could log onto their website, or the American Car Center website, and be redirected to WPM to make payments.
The SC Department of Consumer Affairs told 7NEWS if a client believes they have faced penalties as a result of the confusion over how to make payments during the transition you can “file complaints with our office if their vehicle has been repossessed as a result of missed payment due to the closure of the business,” according to the SCDCA.
Complaints around the following would need to be sent to the SC Department of Consumer Affairs on their website or by calling (800) 922-1594 or (803) 734-4200:
- Tampering with an odometer or giving a false odometer statement
- Warranty/service/repair issues
- Financing issues
- Dealer selling faulty vehicles
- Dealer failed to meet all terms and conditions contained in the written contract
- Dealer publishing or circulating advertising that is misleading or inaccurate
IF WPM IS A DEBT COLLECTOR WILL THAT AFFECT MY CREDIT?
By law WPM is required to put a disclaimer stating it is a debt collector on its website because the company does collect debt. However, after several clients reached out to 7News concerned about how that would show up on their credit report, WPM sent us this statement:
“Westlake Portfolio Management is currently not reporting the ACC portfolio and will not do so until we are comfortable that all customers have had adequate opportunities to communicate, dispute or make payments to WPM. WPM is also currently reporting as an Auto Financing Co. and not a debt collector.”
How does bankruptcy affect contracts?
Greenville Attorney Randy Skinner is quick to point out the bankruptcy does not mean clients can get out of their contract.
“They still have to live up to their end of the bargain no matter what, keeping it insured, making the payments on time,” he said.
What about the warranty?
Skinner points to one aspect where many clients will certainly be at a loss; the warranty.
“They are likely going to shed those off and that means those warranties will be of no value,” according to Skinner.
That is disappointing news, not just to Wilson, but to the nearly 1,500 people who have joined his Facebook group on the closure, some with cars stuck in the shop because the warranty is inactive and no longer covers repair bills.
WMP told 7News “The Limited Warranty is outside of the contract between the customer and ACC. In fact, the Limited Warranty document specifically states that RAC Dealership, LLC dba American Car Center is the backer of the Limited Warranty. Unfortunately, there is no insurance company, guarantor or indemnitor that backs this Limited Warranty and the only backer, RAC Dealership, LLC, has filed Bankruptcy.”
What if I have no tags?
Other customers were dealing with the prospect of not being able to drive their cars altogether, because they couldn’t get the tags.
7NEWS contacted the SC Department of Motor Vehicles who told us “customers can file dealer complaints online by visiting File a Dealer Complaint.”
The following dealer-related complaints fall within the SCDMV’s scope of investigation:
- Undelivered title within 45 days of the sale
- Undelivered paperwork needed to register a customer’s vehicle
- Dealer did not pay off lienholder
- Dealer went out of business before providing a customer with paperwork
UPDATE 4/4/23: 7News received word from WPM that can offer some good news to clients who have no title or tags: “We just received approval today to temporarily hire back two former ACC title clerks that worked for the company prior to the BK filing. They will assist with completing the unfinished title works to help resolve some of the most pressing issues regarding expired tags or unregistered vehicles. This was approved just a few hours ago so there is still some coordination and details that need to be worked out but we at least now have a pathway forward to resolving a lot of issues.”
Deceptive “Buy Here Pay Here” signage
The closure also has clients discovering what they’re calling misleading practices, after what they thought were “Buy Here Pay Here” contracts turned out to be lease agreements.
Even after the closure, electronic signage at the ACC dealership in Greer still said, “Buy Here Pay Here,” but 7NEWS learned from WPM that 98% of all contracts from the 45,000 are leases.
Darla Booher, owner of Deal Depot nearby who leased the property in Greer to ACC, was alarmed to hear the bankrupt company’s clients were not informed about the leases.
She said every dealership should make sure clients know the difference because lease contracts almost always come with high mileage penalties at the end of the term, plus large final payments if people want to purchase the car.
“It is very concerning that consumers would say that they didn’t realize that it’s a lease. Part of being a good dealer, a good business is making sure you fully disclose everything,” Booher said.
“Now I got to pay an additional $4000 more because of the Lease,” Wilson, who had no idea when he signed on the dotted line, said.
His contract did state “lease,” but he admits, like most people, he didn’t read the fine print.
The bankruptcy may have left clients like Wilson with no recourse, but he hopes other car buyers will be forewarned, don’t rely on signage and always read the fine print.
WPM assured 7NEWS they now have all the accounts active, and payments can be made on their site or by calling them.
How do buyers protect themselves?
The SCDCA encourages potential car buyers to research dealer information before making a purchase. There is an online tool, View Dealer License Information, that will allow consumers to view dealer license information, license history and other information about the dealership.
If ACC clients are still having issues WPM says: “Please have all customers contact WPM at 1-866-448-4244 and we will resolve these issues.”