Investigations target Auto Mall

News

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — A used-car dealership that’s long been accused of selling customers faulty cars is now the target of two, state-level investigations.

The Illinois Attorney General and Secretary of State each confirmed their officials are looking into the Auto Mall of Champaign, but declined to provide details on what specifically they’re investigating.

And while those confirmations come in the wake of a Secretary of State Police visit to the Auto Mall nearly a month ago, officials noted that police presence was prompted by the owner’s request.

Trucks block an entrance to The Auto Mall of Champaign.

WCIA reached out to Mowafaq Manasra — who is listed as the Auto Mall’s president in state records — multiple times for comment on the pending investigations, but never received a response.

State records show that the Auto Mall’s status as a corporation in “good standing” is still active — but that’s currently not the case for the business’ operations.

While it’s unclear exactly when those at the Auto Mall decided to shut the doors, the lot and showroom have been cleared of cars, and the entrances blocked.

A history of unsatisfied customers

The Illinois Attorney General has been receiving complains about the Auto Mall for nearly 10 years.

Since 2010, officials have logged 24 complaints — five of which are from 2019.

Central Illinois’ branch of the Better Business Bureau has posted three customer complaints about the Auto Mall since 2018, two of which were answered on the website by sales manager Nick Manasra.

BBB staffers noted their ability to help with consumer complaints is limited, and that the responsibility is ultimately on business owners to resolve complaints to the customer’s satisfaction.

Reviews on Google and social media — as well as those on the BBB website — show that kind of satisfactory resolution isn’t the regular occurrence.

On Facebook, 37 reviews left the Auto Mall at a 1.9-star rating, and 20 reviews on Yelp left it with two stars. The complaints date back to 2013 on Yelp, and 2014 on Facebook.

The same records that show the Auto Mall is still a corporation in “good standing” also show that it’s not the first car business incorporated by Manasra: United Car Center was established in May 2008.

Like the Auto Mall, that business, too, was the source of numerous complaints before it finally closed.

Two customers, two bad cars

Among the customers who feel they were taken advantage of are Kelli Murphy and Angelina Gant, both of whom said their Auto Mall car purchases turned out to be worse than they ever anticipated.

Murphy doesn’t remember exactly when her family decided to purchase a car from the Auto Mall, but estimates it was sometime between 2015 and 2016 — when her daughter turned 16.

She’d waited tables at Monical’s Pizza in Tolono and saved up her tips and paychecks until she had nearly $2,000 for a down payment on a silver, Cadillac CTS.

“We took it for a test drive, and the engine light was on,” Murphy said. “So when we got it back, she still really liked it, but we mentioned the engine light was on and the dealer we were working with said he would check it out.”

Auto Mall staff told the Murphy family that they fixed the issue — and on the surface, it looked that way: the “check engine” light was no longer lit.

“We asked, ‘What happens if the car breaks down?’ And they said they wouldn’t take it back, but they would make it right by us,” Murphy said.

It nearly did break down on the drive home: Murphy remembers the car “sputtering and hesitating” so much that it “barely made it home.”

Her daughter “was heartbroken,” Murphy said. “…She was in tears by the time she got home.”

Murphy said she called the Auto Mall “immediately,” but staff began to make excuses for why they couldn’t help her, mostly meeting her complaints by saying the person she needed to talk to wasn’t at the dealership — sometimes adding that the person was out of the country.

When the family took the car to an auto shop, the mechanic ran the diagnostic trouble codes — computer codes stored in the car’s on-board diagnostic system — and discovered that instead of the “one or two” minor issues that Auto Mall staff said prompted the light, “it was upwards of 10-15 different codes from minor (problems) to major (problems),” Murphy said.

Similarly, Angelina Gant went to the Auto Mall in 2016 with the hopes of buying a new car. She had her eye on a 2013 Dodge Journey, so she took it for a test drive.

“When I first got in the car, I heard a noise so I asked them, ‘What was the noise on the car?'” Gant said. “And they said that’s how a Dodge is supposed to run.”

Gant put a $1,000 down on the $8,000 car. It wasn’t long before the car “started smoking.” She took it back to the Auto Mall, but couldn’t get help from the owner, she said.

Her next stop was the Champaign Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership, where she learned “the car had been in a fire previously.”

And that’s likely the modus operandi for the Auto Mall. Dodge service manager Tim Eilitis said in his nearly three years of working at the dealership, it wasn’t unusual for employees to hear “a good 10-15 (complaints) per month” about the business — largely from people who’d already purchased faulty vehicles.

Auto Mall staff would “bring the Dodges over here,” he said. “We would diagnose the issue. They wouldn’t fix them — they would sell them. The customer would be back here and upset about Dodge and it’s like, ‘We just looked at this vehicle a few weeks ago.'”

Like Murphy and Gant, customers who’d already purchased the vehicles as-is were out of luck when it came to paying the repair bills.

Looking for justice

Murphy took her complaints directly to the business, then to the BBB.

Not much came from either of those actions, she said.

After going directly to the owner, Gant tried the court system and filed a lawsuit in Urbana in 2018. Shortly after that, she said, a hospitalization forced her to drop the suit altogether.

Still, she hopes the state’s investigations somehow lead to justice for her and the other customers who purchased defective cars from the Auto Mall.

“I would love to get my money back if I could — or even another car,” she said.

There’s no guarantee that will happen.

Still, the Illinois Attorney General is encouraging those with complaints to either call the office’s Consumer Fraud Hotline (1-800-243-0618), or fill out a complaint form online, which can be found here.

Cars still for sale?

In the meantime, amid the backdrop of state investigations, the Auto Mall of Champaign is expected to continue selling cars near Chicago — at least for one day.

The lot in Champaign may be clear, but Secretary of State officials said they didn’t impound any vehicles.

A spokesperson from Manheim Chicago, described as a “wholesale vehicle auction operation,” told WCIA on Tuesday that the Auto Mall of Champaign is still expected to be the “Featured Seller” at a one-day auction on Thursday.

The Auto Mall is slated to bring 250 vehicles to the car-dealers-only auction on Thursday, according to Manheim Chicago’s advertisement of the event.

You're not going to want to miss this 250 unit run!! This Thursday, our Featured Seller is Auto Mall of Champaign. Join…

Posted by Manheim Chicago on Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Not everyone knows the Auto Mall isn’t currently operating in Champaign — and not everyone has had bad luck with their purchase.

James Hardway said he’d actually purchased a truck from the lot before and when he had problems, Auto Mall staff repaired it without incident.

On Wednesday, he made the roughly 40-minute trek from Camargo to Champaign, expecting to buy a 2016 Nissan Altima he’d found on Cars.com early this week.

Now, it’s time for plan B, he said.

“Well, I’m probably going to head down to Mattoon,” he said. “I found one at KC Summers that I was interested in, so that’s what I will do.”

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