AUSTIN (KXAN) – Freda Bryson-Powell needed a new car to help her get to and from work and school. But, her budget was limited, so when she found a 2000 Nissan for sale on the internet for $1,200, she decided to travel to Lopez Auto Group and check it out in person.
She paid for the vehicle in cash last October, giving the dealership an additional $273 for the title.
Now, more than nine months later, she still doesn’t have her vehicle’s title. Without it, she can’t settle a claim with her insurance company, after she totaled her car in April.
“I haven’t heard from [Lopez Auto Group] since I’ve been out there and as of [early July], they haven’t changed the title over so I don’t know what the problem is,” said Bryson-Powell, who lives in Seguin. “I can’t get anybody to tell me what the problem is.”
The Travis County Constable’s Office, Precinct Three, reached out to about a dozen customers like Bryson-Powell during an ongoing investigation into the dealership's issuance of temporary paper license plates and titles.
On Wednesday, arrest warrants were issued for four of the dealership's workers: Dexton Dedric Young II, 30; Reginald Wayne Campbell, 24; Dexton Dedric Young Sr., 47; and Demontrion Treavon Dee Young, 28. They all face misdemeanor charges of tampering with a government record. Officials say they are accused of altering the expiration dates of 30-day paper permits for vehicles sold at the dealership.
“This right here is a criminal enterprise and it's been going on for now, what, three years? Now that's sad,” Sgt. Joe Escribano said after the constable's office arrested Dexton Dedric Young II on Wednesday at Lopez Auto Group.
A yearlong KXAN investigation links Lopez Auto Group to two other dealerships that previously operated at the same address in east Austin, but that shut down amid complaints. All three dealerships, located at 1124 Airport Blvd., have different owners listed on filings with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, but law enforcement say many of the employees remain the same.
“If you had complaints with the prior business and they didn’t resolve those, but you still have the business at the same location, the state needs to put a halt to that because evidently something is wrong,” Bryson-Powell said.
Her frustration with Lopez Auto Group grew after she filed a complaint with the Texas DMV and an investigator told her she wasn’t alone. Her case is one of dozens of complaints against the dealership that the state agency is investigating.
She asked a Texas DMV Enforcement Division investigator why the dealership is still allowed to operate amid numerous investigations and complaints from consumers.
This right here is a criminal enterprise...
The problem, the state agency says, is that they’re limited by law in what they can do to hold a dealership’s licensee and employees accountable.
Corrie Thompson, director of the Texas DMV’s Enforcement Division, said the administrative and dealership licensing actions the state agency takes are different than civil or criminal actions, which can result in prosecution.
“We can't force a dealer to buy the vehicle back, to refund any money, that's not within our jurisdiction to be able to do that for a consumer,” Thompson said. “All we can do is fine them and possibly sanction their license."
Authorities seized dozens of cars from Discount Auto Sales in April 2016, after investigators said 200 titles were not properly transferred by the dealership.
The problems didn’t stop there. The same month the vehicles were seized, some of the same employees began working at T&Y Auto Sales — at the same address.
The Texas DMV has opened more than 80 investigations into T&Y Auto Sales, which has since closed. Now, once again, the same employees are working at a dealership at the same address -- Lopez Auto Group.
KXAN investigators discovered more than 100 complaints filed against the three dealerships within less than two years. During one investigation, the DMV sent T&Y Auto Sales a letter on Jan. 30, 2017, citing the dealership with 20 violations, according to an open records request.
Some of the violations allege the dealership didn’t keep complete purchase and sale records, failed to apply for a title transfer in a timely manner, issued multiple temporary dealer tags and failed to issue the proper buyer’s tags. One customer told the DMV a salesman at T&Y Auto Sales ran him off the property with a machete, according to documents obtained by KXAN.
Machete-wielding man chases after customer at used car lot
Courtesy: Zak Robbins
Based on past violations, the DMV recommended a $20,000 civil penalty, according to records. The fine was reduced to $5,000 along with a list of provisions that the DMV says the dealership didn’t always adhere to.
T&Y Auto Sales ultimately shut down before the DMV had a chance to revoke its license, according to an email from a state investigator.
But, customers like Bryson-Powell wonder why a new dealership, with some of the same employees and tactics, was able to open at the same location. “It’s probably a lot more people than this that have been duped by these people so I don’t understand why the state is so lackadaisical about this,” she said.
The Austin Police Department, the agency that busted Discount Auto Sales at that address in April 2016, said on Monday that “it doesn’t appear that we are working anything right now,” regarding the two dealerships that popped up at that location since.
Now, a new Compliance and Investigations Division at the Texas DMV could help cut down on vehicle fraud. During the 85th Legislative Session, the Texas DMV was awarded nearly $2 million in funding through fiscal year 2019 for a special investigations unit that will allow them to focus on criminal activity, including title fraud, and then turn those cases over to law enforcement.
Since the unit became fully staffed in June, the DMV says they have already responded to dozens of requests for assistance from local to federal law enforcement entities and have assisted with six felony search warrants. Some of the ongoing investigations the unit is actively involved with include odometer fraud, as well as title and registration fraud and public corruption.
The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts also has an ongoing investigation into the dealership. On Wednesday, the agency said it is “investigating the dealer not transferring titles in a timely fashion and/or any other criminal violations that may arise, taxes included.”
KXAN Goes Undercover
A Lopez Auto Group salesman stood by while a customer inspected a truck he was interested in last fall.
“It’s fine. No check engine light or nothing,” the salesman said. “You know it’s a brand-new truck.”
When the customer complained that the truck was dripping oil, the salesman bent over, dipped his finger in the oil and smelled it before telling the customer that it wasn’t oil but instead, was water.
As the worker tried to make a sale, another employee later told an undercover KXAN reporter that they want to be the “Costco auto sales.”
“We goin' sell to that many people, that's what we trying to do,” the individual said.
But, customers like Bryson-Powell claim they've had issues with their purchases. She assumed her vehicle had a valid inspection when she purchased it from Lopez Auto Group, but it didn’t. In fact, several individuals who purchased vehicles from that location likely drove off with unsafe vehicles last year, since Thompson said “a lot of those vehicles had not been inspected."
KXAN spoke with other customers, like William Chalmers, who worried he could get in an accident at any moment.
“You can't get the titles for these cars. They givin' you cars that won't pass inspection,” Chalmers said. “Fake paper plates that's not even registered in the system, you know, and then they take your TT&L money and they never go get your title for ya.”
Another customer who reached out to KXAN said shortly after purchasing a car from T&Y Auto Sales, she was stopped by police who told her it was registered to someone else. Worried the vehicle was stolen, the woman said she ended up parking the car on the side of the road and let the city tow it away to avoid being stopped by police again. And, like many other customers who encounter problems with the vehicles they bought from the dealership, she was out the money she paid for it.
In an email to a customer, a DMV investigator was apologetic for not being able to do more to help.
The Texas DMV says its licensing division does take certain things into consideration, when trying to determine whether or not to approve a new dealership license, such as whether or not the applicant has had any family members or managers sanctioned by the DMV. But, the state agency says, it’s ultimately up to the person applying for the license to be truthful when questioned by investigators and adhere to the sanctions the DMV puts in place.
“I have been working in my investigative capacity since 2006 and have seen this type of tragedy happen way too many times,” the DMV investigator told a customer in an email. “It is frustrating for the consumer as well as the investigators trying to assist. Once a dealer cuts off communication – we can only let the case go forward through our administrative prosecution process while giving the consumer several options to continue to pursue getting a title for their vehicles on their own.”
Still, a DMV investigator's email to Bryson-Powell outlines the problems at the three dealerships and confirms some employees are not only the same, but acquaintances or relatives of the individuals who applied for a dealership license.
Bryson-Powell thinks someone needs to be held accountable for not stopping the dealership from taking advantage of customers like herself.
“If they’re not responding to the state, why in the hell would they respond to me?” she said.
Difficulties with a car dealership?
- Customers can file a complaint against a car dealership with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles by clicking here.
- If the dealership you purchased your vehicle from won’t hand over the title, you can apply for a bonded title by clicking here.
- Before purchasing a used car, make sure the vehicle has a clean title by clicking here.
- You can also file a consumer complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office by clicking here.