CLEVELAND -- It's called street spam - roadside signs selling just about anything. A Channel 3 News investigation finds out who's posting them and why buyers should beware.
Diane Reel was looking for a car when she saw a sign posted near her home offering what sounded like a great deal.
"It said $99 down if you really want a car, so I called," Reel said. "I said, 'Okay, this is my opportunity to get a car.'"
The telephone number led her to ABC Motor Credit, which had someone pick her up at home and drive her to the Akron car lot.
By the end of the day, Reel had purchased an 11-year-old car for more than $15,000 by agreeing to a 23 percent loan. The dealership also did her taxes, agreeing to take a $2,000 refund as a down payment.
Reel said problems started almost as soon as she drove the car off the lot. It shook badly on the trip back from Akron. The next day, a fog light fell off. Then it stalled in a busy intersection.
"I go into my glove compartment and there's an extra key," she said. "It has a message on it. It says falling apart, front end damage...And they knew it."
Channel 3 News spent the last month investigating signs like the one posted by ABC Motor Credit along the side of the road or on a telephone pole.
They're called street spam, like the junk mail that clogs your email inbox. And they promise great deals on everything from cars and life insurance to hot tubs and mattresses.
A salesman at ABC Motor Credit, got camera-shy when we started asking questions.
"I'm not sure what signs you're referring to," said the salesman, who said he didn't have a name.
The Investigator Tom Meyer found almost all the signs led to legitimate businesses, although not all of them have a good track record.
A sign selling hot tubs led to Northeast Factory Direct in Cleveland. It has a C-minus rating with the Better Business Bureau.
"It's an inexpensive way to advertise," said owner Alex Nemet, who said he takes the signs down when asked by municipalities that complain. "There are certain cities obviously if I put another sign out I'm going to get arrested."
Another sign took Meyer to a Brook Park storage unit where a guy was selling stacks of mattresses. Turns out he had a business license to sell the sleepers.
"A buddy of mine is a large mattress wholesaler," the man said. "It's kind of like underwear. Once you take the plastic off it's considered used. That's why these are still in the original factory plastic."
Cleveland and many suburbs remove street spam when they see it. It might be free advertising for companies, but it's considered a safety hazard that's costing taxpayers a bundle.
"You get control of it, then maybe it will be alright for a month and then here it comes again," said Brook Park Mayor Mark Elliot.
While street spam can lead to legitimate businesses, consumer experts say you still need to do your homework on the company. Here's some tips you can use before you buy:
- If you've never heard of the seller, check its store location to make sure it's legitimate, and also look for complaints that have been made to the BBB or the Attorney General's Office. This can be done online.
- Ask upfront about the company's refund and return policies, as well as total cost of the purchase. There may be hidden fees they don't tell you about.
- Get a shipment date.
- Keep records of your order, including a list of items you're buying, their stock codes and any confirmation codes.
- Be mindful that private sales carry more risk. Shop around. The deals being offered might be beat elsewhere.
- If you're buying a mattress, look to see if it has a manufacturer's tag. If the mattress is used, look for a sanitation tag that says when the mattress was cleaned by the seller. Either way, the mattress should be wrapped in plastic.
- Be sure to get a written receipt that contains details on any warranties or refund policies. And get contact information for the business.
- If possible, pay by credit card so you can dispute any problems with the credit card company.
- Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days to dispute the purchase with the credit card company if you don't get the merchandise you purchased.
- You might also be able to dispute unsatisfactory merchandise or services with a credit card company. The charge must be more than $50, the sale was made within 100 miles of your home and you tried to make a good faith effort to resolve the dispute.
- If you buy an item in your home or at a location that's not the seller's permanent business office, you might be able to return the merchandise. The Federal Trade Commission's Cooling-Off Rule gives you three days to cancel a contract of $25 or more for a full refund.
- The Cooling-Off Rule applies to sales at the buyer's home, workplace or at facilities rented by the seller on a temporary basis such as a hotel room, convention center, fairground and restaurant.
- If you financed the purchase through the seller, you may have protections under state and federal law.
- Check the credit contract, it might give you the right to make a claim that the seller failed to deliver the goods.
- Make a complaint to the BBB or the state Attorney General's Office. They can get involved and try to resolve the problem.
Reel filed a complaint with Attorney General Mike DeWine's office. ABC canceled Reel's contract and took back the car. But she says she'll never call on a street spam sign again.
"They take total advantage of someone," Reel said. "I think they're all a rip off."