Last month, Bertel reported on a Wall Street Journal story that revealed that BMW USA officials inflated sales figures in their zeal to overtake rival Mercedes-Benz in US sales. The automaker was offering dealers cash to basically sell the cars to themselves, under the guise of the units being used as customer demonstrators. The WSJ piece was met with laughter in the halls of car companies, as the practice is common to most automakers. The hilarity has officially ended: a former American Suzuki sales rep was just indicted for wire fraud for conspiring with a dealer to inflate sales figures.
On Thursday a Spartanburg, South Carolina federal grand jury indicted ex-Suzuki automobile dealer Joe Gibson and eight of his former employees for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charges were straight out of The Scumbag Car Dealer Handbook: falsifying information on customer loan applications, deceptive sales practices and misleading marketing, specifically for ads offering new cars for $44 a month. Gibson went bankrupt in 2008 after hundreds of angry clients filed lawsuits against the store.
Also charged was ex-American Suzuki field rep Brian J. Sullivan. According to the indictment, defendants did, “devise a scheme and artifice to defraud and to obtain money and other things of value from American Suzuki Motor Corporation.” In other words, on the last day of the month Sullivan might call dealer Gibson and say something like, “Hey Joe, buddy, I need you to report 12 of your SX4s and 4 of those Forenzas today. Don’t forget you will get $750 per and please come up with better names for the bogus buyers than last month – my boss wondered why someone named “General Robert E. Lee” bought that XL7.” Gibson would input the sales and get the cash incentives, Sullivan would hit his quota and American Suzuki would report their inflated sales numbers to their bosses in Japan and to the press. All was well – except for the fact they had just committed wire fraud.
Whether using names of friends, family or those plucked from the phonebook to use as ghost owners, or classifying the cars as “demos,” the vehicles are still brand new and still on the ground, and thus should not be counted in carmakers’ numbers.
The indictment also referred to the act of falsifying sales as “punching” a car, a term derived from the old days of physically punching a “report of sale” card into a computer. Over the years, the term has gone from “burning” to “dumping” to “flushing” to “punching” and car dealers probably know a dozen more.
Sullivan may be the first automobile company manager to ever be indicted for directing retailers to fake sales numbers. The repercussions of this case might resonate through automakers and put a stop to a practice that is as ancient as the hills. The book Arrogance and Accords devoted an entire chapter to American Honda’s “flushing” of sales cards in the 1980s and 1990s.