Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

 

Promotional Scam at a Car Dealership

P.T. Barnum said there's a sucker born every minute, and I'm pretty sure he was underestimating. I got a promotional packet in the mail Thursday that had a scratch card with a key glued to it and a flyer that told me if the number on the scratch card matched the number on the flyer, I was a winner. It came from a local car dealership, Larry Hill Pontiac. Now I'm a suspicious character, especially when it comes to car dealers, who are the only group to score lower than Congress in popularity, and I was virtually certain that when I scratched off the ticket, I would find out I won, but that there would be a catch.

I wasn't disappointed. The scratch ticket matched the number on the flyer and I had won one of 5 possible prizes: a new Pontiac, an ATV, a 60" TV, a $1000 shopping spree, or $100. The first catch was relatively straightforward; I had to come down to the dealership and compare my "Winning Number" to the winning number on their board. Well, my son is about to drive and he's looking for a car, so I figured why not head down to the dealership and see what happens?

I knew I wasn't going to be able to get there until Saturday, so I had plenty of time to look over the contest flyer and see what catches I could find. It didn't take long to find a doozy hidden in the small print on a dark brown background. The fine print said that the Winning Number was not the one in the big red type, but a different number, a very small one placed inconspicuously in the address label. It also gave the odds of winning each prize and I was a bit surprised to see that the odds of winning the $1000 shopping spree were 27,346 in 27,350, while the odds of winning the other prizes were 1 in 27,350. Additionally, only one of the three grand prizes were to be given away. The person with the lucky number would have his choice of one of the top three prizes. The other two would go unawarded.

But it was those 27,000+ $1000 shopping sprees that stuck in my head. Even with a 1% return, that meant $270,000 (thanks to Stephen R for correcting my math) worth of merchandise was being given away by the dealership, and I knew that wasn't going to happen. So I read more of the fine print and found out that the shopping spree was limited to items on a specfic website, selectyourgifts.com, and that to claim my "free" gifts, I would have to pay $10-$30 shipping for each item I selected! That's pretty steep for shipping and handling, unless of course they had some fairly major gifts that would warrant such outlandish rates. Fortunately, the flyer gave me the web address, and said I could check out the available merchandise and preplan my purchases, so I checked it out.

Or tried to.

There was no preview function on the site. In order to look at their catalog, I needed a winning certificate number and password, and this struck me as kind of odd. Didn't they want people to be able to see what kind of prizes they could get for their winning certificate? What were they hiding? My curiosity was aroused; everything seemed to be pointing to some kind of scam, and I wanted to know more about it, so I started searching more diligently. I went to the Select Your Gifts website, and tried to use the link to the customer support site but the customer support site was down. I did a little research using the wayback machine and found out that the support site had been down since sometime between February and May of 2007.

That's a lot of down time. Now I was definitely smelling a rat.

Fortunately, the Terms of Service link worked, and that lead me to an email address, , and I sent them an email request for a password to their store for preview purposes. They responded two days later that I needed to get a certificate and a password from the dealership.

They really don't want people looking at the prizes before they go to the dealership.

So I went to the dealership.

My doubts about the promotion were reinforced when I got to the dealership. I expected a high pressure come on since the event was winding down and I wasn't disappointed, but salesman Chris Dileo from Connecticut certainly was as I didn't follow his script. When I asked him about the sale, he told me that most of the cars being sold were owned by the bank, and they were trying to clear them out rather than have to take them to auction. He also let me know that he and his fellow salesmen were not part of Larry Hill Pontiac, but were a special team brought in strictly for this event. In fact, as soon as the sale was over, he was headed back home to Connecticut. I asked him about the details of the promotion and he confirmed that every number on the flyer matched the one on the scratch card and it was just a device to get people into the dealership. As soon as he realized that there was no commission waiting for him, he took off to rejoin the school of piranha circling in front of the dealership, and I went to find somebody who actually worked there.

I met Harold Posey, an older gentleman who referred me to Jeff Hill, brother of the owner. I told Jeff about what I'd found out, and asked him if he was comfortable using these deceptive kinds of tactics to get people onto his lot. He stared at me for a couple of minutes, and started to talk about understanding that I was upset that I hadn't won the grand prize. I told him that I'd come into the dealership knowing that I wouldn't win the prize, but was there primarily to find out whether he thought the promotion was in keeping with the ideals of the company.

He invited me back to his office and when we sat down, he began to grill me. Who was I? Where did I work? What kind of job did I do? Then he asked me the big question.

"What gives you the right to come in here and question how I do business?"

"I'm a potential customer and you invited me in when you sent out that direct mailing flyer."

Apparently he didn't like that answer too much, and he began to lecture me on how dare I come in and impugn the way he did business, and integrity was his watchword, and was I fishing for a lawsuit, and he scrupulously followed every law, and so on and so forth. But he never answered what I thought was a very simple question.

"Are you comfortable using a promotion like this one to bring people onto your lot?"

I wasn't sure whether his reaction was driven by guilt or by injured pride, but I knew I needed to look into this thing deeper. When I got home, I fired up the internet and started digging deeper breaking out the old Google Fu to see what I could turn up.

That's when I found out how much of a scam this promotion was. Apparently, Select Your Gifts has developed something of an unsavory reputation. It appears that the merchandise they send you for free (plus shipping and handling) isn't even worth the shipping and handling.

But I couldn't go just on anonymous posts on a website that is set up specifically to gripe about companies. I was only getting one side of the story. So I kept digging. I found the corporate website for American Sales Industries, the parent company for Select Your Gift. On the front page, I found the $1000 shopping spree certificates listed as product #08-66 and when I clicked on the link, the next page gave me the option to visit the store. When I selected that option, I was given a certificate number and password (both "sample") to use for a tour. At last, I had a way to preview the gifts and see for myself whether they were a bargain or not. I logged onto the site and looked around.

Fred Sanford wouldn't touch the stuff offered on that website. A few examples:

I chose the electronics category first, because I knew that I had to pay $10-30 shipping charges on each item, so I wanted to go for the most expensive toys I could find to maximize my free stuff. I found a 3 in 1 digital camera (product # 10-32), sporting a whopping .26 megapixels, similar to one I bought at WalMart as a stocking stuffer several years ago. Back then, I think I paid $15. Select Your Gift said it is worth $34.95 but they'd send it to me for free, as long as I paid, as long as I paid $20.95 for shipping and handling. On Amazon, an equivalent camera sells for $9.99.

Or how about the Meikai 50MM Camera Kit with Flash (product # 10-46) which the Select Your Gift website claims is worth $129.95, but I found here for 99 pence, or $1.85. But Select Your Gifts will send it to you absolutely free, just add $17.95 shipping and handling.

Okay, so the electronics were disappointing, but maybe there were good deals in other areas of the site. I checked out the Kitchen section. I looked at The Bacon Wave, (product # AS-155) a microwaveable bacon cooker. Amazon sells it for $8.98, listing the original price as $15.95. Select Your Gift lists its market price as $29.95, but will give it to you for free, just add $8.95 shipping and handling.

You get the point. The items available as "prizes" are cheap crap listed at inflated retail prices, then shipped at outrageous fees that are higher than the actual value of the prize. No wonder they don't want to let prospective "winners" see the site.

Sadly, it gets worse.

My google search turned up another site, called Premier Gifts. This site is also run by American Sales Industries, contains most of the same products (even the stock numbers are the same!), and you don't have to win anything in order to buy their products.

Why is this significant? Because the purchase price for the products on Premier Gifts is in most cases identical to the shipping and handling fees for the "prizes" at Select Your Gift.

In other words, that $1000 shopping spree is worth exactly nothing. Zero. You have won nothing. Everything you can buy with that certificate you can buy from the same folks for about the same price, or from other businesses for less.

It's a scam, plain and simple.

So I called them. Their website gave their corporate contact information and I called and asked for Steven Talerico, listed as the owner of the Select Your Gift website, and as Exec. Vice President and CEO of ASI Incentives. I asked Steven about the two websites, Premier Gifts and Select Your Gifts, and asked him how they could claim that the $1000 shopping spree prize could be valued at $1000 when anybody could buy the exact same merchandise for about the same price without the certificate just by switching websites.

Steven was bewildered, and told me he wouldn't know about that; he was "just a salesman," and he would transfer me to another person who could help. He tried to transfer me to Pat Talerico, the President and Chairman of the Board, but he couldn't get the transfer to go through. He finally transferred me to "Brian," who said he was the IT guy, and that he ran all of the ASI websites.

Brian told me that the "Premier Gifts" site was non functional, and wouldn't be online for at least a year. I tested it and it is fully functional. Brian also told me that the "Premier Gifts" site was just a mirror for the SYG site, and that everything on it would be changing as they got ready to launch. It isn't. The terms of service acknowledge the difference between the SYG site and the PG site; also, there are a few items available on the SYG site that aren't on the PG site, and vice versa. Brian also claimed that the PG site would be used to allow people who have expended their "prize" to continue shopping for gifts. They would be given private access to the site. Again, not likely. The PG site is hosted on Megalinx Mall, a site whose business plan depends on open access to all shops since profits are shared by all shops in the mall.

When I pointed out to Brian that the merchandise offered on the various sites was for the most part worth way less than the values ASI was assigning, and that in most cases, they were worth less than the S&H fees they were charging, he had no effective defense. He argued that if a customer got a better deal by a buck or two at Amazon, they'd lose whatever savings they saw in Amazon's S&H policy. Inadvertently, Brian admitted that the stuff on the SYG site was not worth anything more than the 'fees' they charged.

Here is the capper. Whatever company hosts this promotion must buy the certificates to give out. That's right. Larry Hill Pontiac had to pay ASI for the right to give their customers those worthless certificates.

I don't know whether that makes them the first victims in this scam or willing accomplices, and I guess I won't find out. Despite repeated attempts to pass this information along to Jeff Hill in person and via telephone, I have been unable to do so. And all I really wanted to do was to pass on what I've discovered about ASI, and ask him one last question:

"If you are willing to do business with a group like this, why should I trust you enough to buy a car from you?"
Posted by Rich
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Great job! You're going to save a lot of folks some grief by connecting all these parts. The Internet remembers and you've provided all the right keywords for searching.
Posted by Kay Brooks  on  08/18  at  09:36 PM

Awesome job, Rich. Good work on how using the internet as a tool can save us a lot of money and hassle.
Posted by Barry  on  08/19  at  11:46 AM

Who says bloggers don't do investigative reporting? This piece would be at home in any local newspaper. Hell, it's a lot better work that you find in either of the rags published here. Damned fine work, sir!
Posted by Kevin Baker  on  08/20  at  09:16 AM

Well done!

Will the comment security code win me any prizes?
Posted by DJK  on  08/20  at  12:55 PM

On the "store's" website, there actually is a hidden link that allows you to preview the "merchandise". I pulled it out of the HTML source. (Which is "sample" for both username and password, as you said. You can highlight the link by "tab-ing" in Firefox.)

<a href="http://www.selectyourgifts.com/checkin.cfm?form.userid=sample&form.password=sample" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://www.selectyourgifts.com/checkin.cfm?form.userid=sample&form.password=sample" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://www.selectyourgifts.com/checkin.cfm?form.userid=sample&form.password=sample" rel="nofollow">http://www.selectyourgifts.com/checkin.cfm?form.userid=sample&form.password=sample</a></a></a>
Posted by Alcibiades  on  08/20  at  03:50 PM

Wonderful, wonderful post and excellent reporting. I appreciate your thoroughness! smile

Thanks for the FYI. One of those things that you just know is a scam, but digging deeper you figure out exactly how and why. Creeepy.
Posted by Evan  on  08/20  at  05:02 PM

"...[I]t was those 27,000+ $1000 shopping sprees that stuck in my head. Even with a 1% return, that meant $2.7 million worth of merchandise...."

Nope. That would be a 10% return.

27,000 x 1000 = 27,000,000
10% = 2,700,000
1% = 270,000

Still, outstanding effort. This is the best of what blogging is about -- "citizen reporting". You followed this up like a pro. smile
Posted by Stephen R  on  08/26  at  02:47 PM

I went into a car dealership in Fenton, MI (Lasco Ford) when I got one of those flyers with the key on it because before I actually got a Wal Mart gift card for going in. Anyhow...the funny thing on the SELECTYOURGIFT.COM flyer...the FIRST sentence on the information page tells you to NOT use a search engine to get info on them.
NOW WE KNOW WHY...GREAT WORK.
Posted by Steve  on  09/20  at  10:42 PM

Ya I just got the same thing a waste of time should have googled it first. Most of it's just cheap crap/surplus at best you break even after paying the shipping and handling.
Posted by Kurt  on  09/29  at  10:30 PM

Thanks for the blog. I "won" one of those certificates today. Think I'll send it back to the dealership w/ a nasty little note at Christmas.
Posted by Jenna Duncan  on  10/31  at  03:01 PM

THANKS FOR THE HEADS UP!! Just got one of these certifcates in the mail..
Posted by Dona  on  11/15  at  03:41 PM

Glad I could help!
Posted by Rich Hailey  on  11/16  at  03:50 PM

You couldn't have said it all any better! I am copying this and taking it to Stan McNabb Ford.Mercury ,LLC in Lewisburg,Tennessee 37091 This is the place that is scamming people and I want to put it in the papers so others know not to deal with a company that is an accomplise to unethical ways of advertising such as these! Thank you for all the hard work you did to educate us all...let's be sure to keep educating others and not giving companies business because they were trying to give us "The Business!"
Posted by LorraineLamb  on  12/29  at  03:28 PM

Yep...I went to the KIA dealership in HumbleTX with the same promise of being a winner. Bought my son a pair of sunglasses with a radio attached with a value of $19.99. hehehe found the same glasses @ a Dollar Tree for $1.08. Wished i would have seen your blog before I was ripped off:(
Posted by Eric HoustonTX  on  12/29  at  10:12 PM

Hi, I just got a call today. They claimed I won 4 magazines monthly and the $1000 shopping spree. That I only had to "help" them out by accepting the offer to boost sales of a slumping magazine, ESPN weekly. I would have to commit to buy this for 60 months. That comes out to $1287 over 5 years. Not including the crap that you would get from the web site huh! I was supposed to get a second call to confirm my agreement, I let the second called know that I would not be able to have time to talk untiltomorrow. Had to research.... good thing I did. Thank you for your information.
Posted by Amy  on  02/13  at  12:27 AM

Just received one of these from a local Hyundai Dealership. Thought I had actually won something. The first line on the back of the certificate stated; "Don't enter through a search engine". Now I can see why. Thanks for your work to sniff this out. You've saved me some money and some angst.
Posted by Ted  on  02/21  at  06:29 PM

Thanks for the great investigative work! I just got one of these mailings from a local dealer and I also did the math and found it impossible that they were giving away that kind of scratch. I read the fine print and they squeeze the $1000 shopping spree between a big screen and a $500 walmart card. The odds of winning this "spree" were 29997:30000 while all of the others including the gift card are 1:30000. Also, at the bottom of the fine print it reads: "In the case that more than one winning number is sent out in error, all numbers become void and no prizes other than the $1000 shopping spree will be awarded." Very clever, they just completely got themselves out of having to give away any of the prizes! You can bet that more than one winning number was sent out in "error!" I will never buy a car from a dealership that uses these scams to get folks in the door.
Posted by Jim  on  02/25  at  12:44 PM

Thank you for your post. I just had a timeshare offer me a $500.00 shopping spree at selectyourgifts.com. I wanted to get more info on it before I gave them 2hours of my life to listen to a lame presentation offering false goods. You did a great job getting down to the nitty gritty. Have you ever thought about doing some freelance writing work or journalism? Sounds like you would do great! Thanks!
Posted by Charissa  on  03/31  at  02:07 PM

I ran into this same scam at Southaven Buick GMC in Southaven, MS. I got a card announcing I won a gift card to WalMart or three other companies. When I got there, figuring I might get a $2 gift card, I got a worthless $1000 "Shopping Spree" card from "Selectyourgift.com" I Googled it and came up with dozens of complaints such as this one, confirming my speculation that it was a rip-off.

I called the manager of Southaven Buick GMC to tell him he'd lost a potential $35,000 sale (I am actually in the market for a new pickup to replace my 5 year old GMC) and all he could say was he didn't know anything about it.

Now I could believe he was ignorant of the sales tactics he's paid to use, or I could believe he's just a plain rip-off artist, but either way, he's either incompetent or a criminal.

I'll take my business up the road to Orange GMC, at least they seem to be honest, even though they're 25 miles away.

No wonder GM is going bankrupt!
Posted by John  on  03/31  at  04:25 PM

THANK YOU SO MUCH. i recieved a similar "you've won $1000". i was rather suspicious because a couple of my friends had gotten the same $1000, and no one seemed to have gotten the $50 up front or a plasma tv. you saved me alot of trouble, thanks
Posted by Nick  on  04/01  at  04:57 PM

I recieved a 1,000.00 gift card from a car dealer that i thought was a good dealer ship how wrong was i all these dealers now whats going on they are just rippin people off with a bunch of false hope there ought to be a law to punish dealers that ripp the consumer off next time maybe we should picket them out front of the dealer ship to protect the unknowing from a lot of heartack thanks paul oh ya the dealership is a chrysler dealer in martinsville indiana
Posted by paul pedigo  on  04/07  at  10:35 AM

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