American dream or American scheme
Too good to be true? Truckers say a rent-to-own program through American Truck Group foists junk trucks and bogus promises onto unsuspecting buyers.

By Clarissa Hawes, staff writer

Analisa Rivera-Fennal found out she was pregnant with twins on Jan. 30, the day her husband, Kevin Fennal, signed paperwork on a 2005 Peterbilt 379 through American Truck Group. The company, which is headquartered in Gulfport, Miss., specializes in subprime lending and the heavy truck market.

However, what was supposed to be a happy time for the Fennal family turned into a financial nightmare just 20 days after taking possession of the truck when it broke down with major engine trouble on the New Jersey Turnpike.

After a warning by the New Jersey state trooper to move his truck or be towed, Kevin said he started making a series of frantic phone calls to American Truck Group, or ATG, to find out his next steps. After all, he had a 30-day warranty on his truck.

Despite repeated calls, Kevin couldn’t reach anyone at ATG so he paid to have his truck towed to a nearby Peterbilt dealership. The dealership worked up an estimate on his busted engine and faxed it to ATG. In the end, however, Kevin said ATG refused to allow the Peterbilt dealership to repair the truck in New Jersey. Instead ATG made the decision to have it towed back to Gulfport to be repaired in their shop.

Kevin would be down a total of 40 days without pay, leaving him financially devastated, before ATG swapped him out with a second truck.

“The company says they help truckers who move America and are the backbone of this country, but what they do is leave truckers in a financial hole they can’t get out of,” Kevin told Land Line.

The bait and switch?
Kevin Fennal, an OOIDA member and 18-year trucking veteran, said he only went with ATG because his old truck was on its last leg and he was in the middle of a home refinancing deal.

Not wanting to be down over the winter, Kevin said he called ATG to see what sort of deal he could get. He said the sales originator told him the company would be willing to let him trade in his truck toward a new one through its rent-to-own program.

After test-driving a royal blue Peterbilt, Kevin said he put a down payment on the truck and told the sales agent he would be back in five days to pick it up after he delivered his load. During that time, Kevin said the sales agent from ATG started sending him pictures of a different truck, stating that the original truck he test-drove and put the deposit down on “was no longer available.”

“In my book, it was the old bait and switch,” he said. “I liked the first truck, test-drove it, put money down on it. Then they sold it out from under me … and didn’t seem willing to give it back.”

It was then that Kevin says he realized the truck he signed for may not have been the American dream, but the American scheme.

Not backing down
Jackie Osborne of Lincoln, Calif., has been representing herself in a legal battle with American Truck Group over a rent-to-own contract she signed on a 2008 Volvo.

Looking back, Jackie told Land Line that she should have walked away from the deal – but the company already had more than $8,900 of her money and was refusing to return it. “I was faced with a dilemma to leave with a truck and they keep my money, or leave without a truck and they keep my money,” she said.

She said that after taking delivery she and her driver were stopped by the Arizona Department of Transportation and “nearly arrested” on their way back to California for suspicion of stealing the vehicle because they did not have proper documentation to transport the Volvo back to her home state.

“The tags that we had on the vehicle were from another state, and Arizona DOT said they didn’t match the tags they had for the vehicle in their system,” Jackie said. “They called the police and were going to put us in jail for stealing a vehicle. When they (DOT) finally got them on the phone, American Truck Group said they did not know we were going to take the vehicle out of Mississippi.”  

Osborne said the Arizona Department of Transportation worked with her to permit the truck so she and her driver could operate legally until they made it back home to California.

Once there, Jackie said she began corresponding with American Truck Group about the problems she was having with the truck and demanded they either fix the truck’s problems or refund her money.

In her lawsuit filed in federal court in California, Osborne alleges the truck had many problems.

According to American Truck Group’s press release issued via Business Wire in July 2012 about “making the difference for subprime truck lending,” their rent-to-buy program includes a 30-day inclusive protection plan “just in case there is an early problem.”

The company also states in the release that there is a 48-month 50/50 plan where customers can bring the truck to the American Truck Group dealership and pay only one-half of the regular hourly rate and only one-half of the bill for parts.

The problem for many long-haul drivers with truck problems is getting it to the ATG shop in Mississippi, even with the company’s free towing package within a 500-mile radius.

After attempting to negotiate a refund of her deposit and costs associated with taking the truck to Mississippi to return it to ATG – just five weeks after making her down payment – the truck was repossessed in Oregon. The driver was parked for the night on his way to Canada with a load of fresh produce.

Jackie claims her signature was forged because she would never have authorized the voluntary repossession of the tractor while under a load.

“They took the truck, left my trailer and my driver on a side street in Oregon,” she said.

In her complaint, she included copies of two checks to American Truck Group for payments on her Volvo, but she says they were never cashed.

“They think this is a game; they are playing with people’s lives here,” Osborne said. “They’ve taken my career. I am at a total standstill so I have no choice but to bring this to light.”

The name game
In recent years, American Truck Group has changed its name at least three times, most recently from United Truck Group.

According to the Better Business Bureau website, it has received at least 42 complaints against United Truck Group and American Truck Group, earning the company an “F” rating from the BBB.

Thirty-two of the complaints cited problems with products and services, two had guarantee/warranty issues, one had delivery issues, and seven cited advertising and sales issues as the reasons for their complaints.

Jan Schaefer, public information officer with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office, told Land Line that the office has received complaints about the company, but didn’t list how many.

The sales spiel
Despite the number of complaints filed against the company on various websites, Jamie Arnold, a sales originator with American Truck Group for the past year and a half, claims few of the truck drivers who have come through their door have not been successful through their rent-to-own five-year program.

“If we happen to lose a customer, it’s going to be over something that’s not even in our control,” she told Land Line. “They might have lied about their driver’s license, they might have some problems with child support, which has caused their license to be suspended, or they couldn’t pass their DOT physical or it was expired.”

Arnold said that the program requires a minimum down payment of $4,900 up to the maximum amount of $12,500. On the company’s website, ATG boasts “no credit check.”

“It’s not just a typical lease; it’s a rent-to-buy, a 100 percent tax writeoff,” Arnold said.

In another part of Arnold’s spiel, she says the customer has a warranty on the truck the entire time. However, her buyers dispute that claim, citing ATG’s 2012 statement to customers announcing the 30-day plan.

Arnold says each truck is thoroughly inspected before the customer drives off the lot and is, in fact, inspected by an on-site DOT inspector. Her customers say this is baloney, too, and that the “inspectors” are not DOT at all.

Kevin Fennal said that neither truck leased through ATG passed DOT inspection after leaving the company’s lot.

Truck drivers who have been to ATG’s headquarters in Gulfport claim the trucks are often “pieced together, brought back to the shop, then rented out again.” Kevin said. During the 40 days he was down waiting on the second truck, the first one, blown engine and all, had already been “sold off the lot.”

The lure
In the past few years, Jerry Bartley of OOIDA’s Business Services Department said their department has received numerous complaints about American Truck Group and United Truck Group, affiliates of National Truck Funding owned by Louis Normand Jr.

As of press time in October, ATG President Bruce “Bo” Lindsay did not respond to interview requests.

The lure of ATG’s rent-to-own program, according to the drivers who have gone through it, is the promise of a truck if the minimum down payment requirement is met.

However, drivers claim they are not told what their truck payments will be until after they have forked over their down payments. If the amount differs from the verbal agreement, the company already has a chunk of drivers’ money, which makes it harder for them to walk away from the deal. Then seven days later, they must make their first payment.

Jackie Osborne is continuing her legal fight against American Truck Group, which remains in federal court.

“I will fight them for the next 20 years if I have to, with whatever life is left in me – to see justice served,” she said.

Years may be what it takes. ATG shows no signs of slowing down or going away. ATG owner Louis Normand has announced his ambitious plans to expand his subprime lending business model throughout the Southeast.

One has already opened up in Georgia. LL