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As Abel Toll’s Autosaver empire grows, consumer complaints pile up

Capitol City KIA in Montpelier is part of the Autosaver Group, which includes 14 dealerships and has a rate of consumer complaints well above the industry average. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Even if you’ve never heard of Abel Toll, you’ve probably heard him selling cars. 

Toll is the owner of Autosaver Group, a collection of 14 car dealerships in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York. His voice is featured in the dealership’s broadcast advertisements, selling listeners on “the best price, period” and “the home of the Big Deal.” 

Toll and his wife, Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, live in Danville, where their families are close to nobility. And in the three decades since Toll began amassing car businesses, his company has blossomed: from a single, co-owned business, he grew a veritable empire.

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The Autosaver Group dealerships comprise a significant section of Vermont’s automotive industry. In 2018, they sold more than 14,000 vehicles at their locations in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. The company declined to give a breakdown of sales by location, so it’s not clear exactly how many were made in Vermont, where nine of the group’s 14 dealerships are located. 

Even if it’s only 10,000 sales in Vermont, that would still account for some 10% of the 100,877 sales reported by the Vermont Vehicle and Automotive Distributors Association (VADA), which counts all of the state’s major dealerships among its members. 

Along with its impressive sales figures, Toll’s dealership group also has the distinction of being the subject of an outsized number of consumer complaints, some of which have resulted in lawsuits.  

The Autosaver dealerships accounted for a combined 280 consumer complaints filed with the Attorney General’s Office in the past six years. The company said its 14,000 sales last year was typical, meaning it has racked up at least one complaint per 300 sales over that time. The industry average is one complaint per 875 sales, according to data from VADA.

(Because Autosaver’s sales figure counts sales at the New Hampshire and New York locations, the ratio of complaints to sales in Vermont is likely higher, and the distance from the industry average larger.) 

Autosaver has also accounted for about 40% of all auto-related consumer complaints filed against VADA members in the past six years, yet the company only accounts for some 10%-15% of total sales, according to state and VADA data. 

Then there’s Toll’s legal troubles. In 2002, Toll was brought to federal court for odometer fraud. In 2012, the dealerships paid a $16,000 civil penalty to the state for false advertising. (Toll’s dealerships are the only in Vermont to have received enforcement orders from the Attorney General’s Office since at least 2010.) And in the last six years, there have been lawsuits claiming price misrepresentation, aggressive sales techniques, and loan fraud.

One lawsuit from earlier this year states that an elderly couple became reliant on a food shelf because of a Toll dealership’s actions. A complaint with the Attorney General’s Office alleges that an Autosaver Group employee served a customer Malibu rum before handing him paperwork. Other lawsuits reference “emotional distress” as a result of the business’ dealings. 

According to Vermont Legal Aid consumer rights attorney Grace Pazdan, the Autosaver Group complaints her office investigates tend to involve the poor, the sick and the elderly.

“In my experience, bad dealerships are those that prey on particularly vulnerable consumers … and are willing to engage in illegal and sometimes even criminal behavior in an effort to increase their profits at the expense of unsophisticated consumers,” Pazdan wrote in an email. “We often see clients with incomes under 200% of the poverty line who are sold vehicles with payments that exceed half of their monthly income.”

Abel Toll, president of the Autosaver Group, at Springfield Buick GMC in North Springfield on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Autosaver Group is not the only car enterprise in Vermont to have sparked concerns over loan fraud or manipulative sales tactics. But its size and the consistency of complaints during its 27 years of operation set it apart. 

“When I went in [to the dealership], there was an old guy that was coming out, and he said ‘hold on to your wallet when you go in there.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, I know,’” a woman who sued an Autosaver Group dealership said. 

“That was when I was trying to get my registration money back,” she added. “But no, no, they didn’t care about helping me with that. They just were wanting to make the sale.”

A lifelong salesman

Toll grew up in Danville, where his father, David, was a local doctor and restaurant owner. After graduating from Harvard, David Toll came to Vermont because he thought the area could use the most help. (His alternative destination was post-World-War-II Israel.) When David died last year, his community mourned a beloved physician. 

For all of David’s influence, however, Abel married into a family with still higher local standing. Kitty Beattie grew up on a dairy farm to a mother who was herself a state legislator. Kitty’s parents were local institutions: they were named Danville Citizens of the Year in 1987, and her mother was inaugurated into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2010. When asked about the family, a Danville Historical Society employee lit up with recognition — oh, the Beatties!

In the Legislature, Kitty Toll chairs the House Committee on Appropriations. Her sister, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, is Kitty’s Senate equivalent. The sisters wield significant influence over the state’s budget. 

Combined, the Tolls and the Beatties also own more than 700 acres of land distributed across 31 properties. Much of their acreage is not residential: trusts in the family names own the post office, a restaurant, and several office and apartment buildings. 

Rep. Kitty Toll chairs the House Committee on Appropriations. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

But despite the families’ power, Danville — population 2,000, home to three libraries and at least 10 farms — is not a profitable spot for an auto business. Instead, Abel Toll started off down the road: He first found work in St. Johnsbury, where he got a job at Quality Motors.

“I was 12 years old, washing cars. I always liked cars,” Toll said during an interview with VTDigger at his dealerships’ Springfield location. “When I went to college, I earned spending money by buying cars out of the Boston Globe. … I’d sell the car, make some money.”

After college, Toll began working at Wayne Ford in St. Johnsbury, where he hired future partner Ronney Lyster. As Wayne Ford began to face bankruptcy concerns several years later, Toll and three coworkers struck out on their own: In 1992, the group bought what would become Littleton Chevrolet at auction. Autosaver Group spokesperson Kyle Sipples said that Lyster and Toll bought out their partners shortly after.

According to Toll, the business snowballed from there. He and Lyster, who died last year, bought “small, underperforming” stores and expanded them. 

The partnership between the two managers was an easy one. “Almost every one of our conversations, no matter what we were talking about, always ended in some kind of laugh,” Toll said. “So I miss that.”

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, who works at Key Auto Sales in Newport, said that while Toll worked behind the scenes, Lyster was “the front man, the big smile you see on television.” They often appeared together in commercials, trading puns about lowering prices or arguing about what keeps customers coming back. 

Smith used to work at a dealership that the Autosaver Group took over, in the years before Toll flipped it. What is now Northpoint Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Newport used to be Mulkin Automotive, where Smith was employed for 31 years. He left, he said, because the business “decided to get bigger and more like a push-button operation.”

Smith now works for a small dealership, and he said he has “big concerns” about how larger conglomerates operate. “Some of the things that are done, whether they be from Abel Toll’s group or other big groups, it’s nothing I would do in a smaller dealership in an effort to make money,” he said.

But according to Toll, the Autosaver Group still functions like a small business — even as it swallows up dealerships across the region. The group added Walker Mazda Volkswagen in Berlin to its holdings in October. 

“Everybody in the whole organization knows my telephone number,” Toll said. “They can call me. They can email me. I still feel that the individual units are all small local businesses.”

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, listens during a a public forum in St. Johnsbury last year. Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

Still, Autosaver’s expansion has come with growing pains. In 1999, an early Toll dealership called Barre Auto Mart got sued for shutting down without paying its debts: According to an affidavit for the case, the dealership “simply stopped doing business at its Barre location without notifying its debtors.”

Toll was the only individual named in the case, and the plaintiff stated that Toll claimed responsibility for the dealership. Sipples said that Barre Auto Mart got sold to another dealer before shutting down, though he did not provide any details regarding the transaction. 

But the biggest early controversy for the Toll enterprises involved odometer fraud.

Prison time

In the fall of 1999, the former general manager of Discount Motors — now the Autosaver Outlet in St. Johnsbury — complained to the state about “numerous acts of fraud under the direction of Toll, specifically, the rolling back or ‘clocking’ of vehicle odometers.”

Manager Kevin Sabins, who, according to an affidavit, “made it very clear that he has a very strong personal dislike for Abel Toll,” alleged that he rolled back odometers for Toll on over 100 vehicles during his tenure at the dealership.

Toll pleaded guilty to two counts of intentionally harassing witnesses into silence over the course of the odometer case. He paid a fine of $200,050 and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Sipples wrote that the odometer case came from a “disgruntled terminated employee.” No odometer or consumer fraud actions, he noted, were ultimately brought against Toll.

But Toll was charged with witness harassment, and the FBI special agent who looked into the case wrote that he had “probable cause to believe that Abel Toll and others have committed the crime of odometer fraud.” 

An affidavit in the case, which was tried in the U.S. District Court of Vermont in 2002, details seven different vehicles that the agent researched for fraud. In each instance, the odometer was pushed back thousands of miles; in each instance, subsequent car owners found mechanical problems not in line with their vehicle’s purported mileage.

One of the cars Toll resold had once belonged to Kitty personally. Kitty’s Chevrolet Suburban was a demo car, driven with the dealership’s plates on it. The new owners paid more than $4,000 out of pocket to repair Kitty’s old car, work they suspected “would not have been necessary on a vehicle with lower mileage.”

While Sabins is at the center of the odometer case, his colleagues observed similar illicit activities. The affidavit mentions another general manager who quit “because of other criminal acts that he was asked by Toll to do.” A Discount Motors secretary, too, told a detective she had seen Sabins roll back odometers at Toll’s behest.

Toll was hesitant to speak with VTDigger about the allegations, which he said ended with a “plea agreement to end a pretty stressful time in my life and my family’s life.” He denied committing odometer fraud.

“I made the decision that, even though I felt I could be vindicated, I felt it was better to get it behind me,” he said.

Toll ended up serving 90 days in what he called a “minimum security work camp.” He said that his experience in jail didn’t change how he conducted business — but it did make him “more aware of the world and the way the world works.”

Except for one vague legal document, however, the controversy has since disappeared from the internet. Instead of hindering the business, Toll’s enterprise has grown: First his dealership count doubled, then — by 2019 — it tripled. After Lyster died, Toll bought his shares of the business from his longtime partner’s estate.

After the odometer fraud case closed, Toll made it three years before getting in trouble with the law again.

Former Attorney General William Sorrell investigated the Autosaver Group at least three times during his time in office. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

In 2005, the Attorney General’s Office issued an Assurance of Discontinuance telling Toll and his businesses to stop issuing misleading advertisements. Three years later, the Attorney General’s Office got word that Toll’s businesses hadn’t changed their technique. In 2012, a second assurance charged Toll’s company with continued misrepresentative advertising.

The second time around, the dealerships paid $8,446 in restitution to eight customers — the difference between advertised and actual prices — and a $16,000 civil penalty to the state. 

Toll said that the eight cases of overcharging were an “aberration,” adding that the Attorney General’s Office felt compelled to take some action after a prolonged investigation. “They can’t spend three years investigating somebody, and say, hey boss, there’s nothing there,” he said. “So there was something there, a little bit there.”

The dealerships have not been formally charged by the Attorney General’s Office in the years since the civil penalty. But in 2014, Capitol City Buick GMC tried to sue the office for investigating the dealership without due cause — an investigation that was, once again, for false advertising.

In an email exchange documented in the court case, a Capitol City Buick GMC lawyer wrote that there is “nothing inherently fraudulent about exhorting existing customers to upgrade with new cars.” 

The assistant attorney general’s response was heavy with exasperation. “As I thought was clear from my earlier email, we see Capitol City’s letter as a misrepresentation that there was an official GMC buyback program,” she wrote. “That is quite different from ‘exhorting existing customers to upgrade with new cars.’”

Buick GMC eventually dropped its complaint and the case was dismissed.

Questionable practices

According to Toll, his dealerships operate — have always operated — in good faith.

But five years after the last Attorney General’s Office lawsuit, the office’s Consumer Assistance Program, referred to as AutoCAP, still regularly receives complaints about false advertising — and incorrect loan filing, manipulative salespeople and predatory behavior.

Consumer complaints can be filed by anyone and are automatically processed into the AutoCAP system, which means they are not actually vetted. The number and nature of the complaints a business receives can also be impacted by factors beyond that business’ quality, such as its size or location. 

Charity Clark, chief of staff at the Attorney General’s Office, called some of the program’s data “anecdotal”: The point of the program is to resolve consumer complaints, she said, not to act as data scientists.

Marilyn Miller, the executive director of VADA, and her members were frustrated that complaints, regardless of their veracity, could become a public blight on the dealerships. She noted the organization settles the vast majority of complaints outside any formal legal process. 

Miller noted that only a small fraction of transactions lead to upset customers. “It’s never to a business person’s advantage long term, to sell a ton of cars in a very bad way and … take advantage of all the people that you sold the cars to,” she said. “They’re not coming back; it makes no sense to do that.”

She added that Vermont Legal Aid selects the worst cases of alleged dealer misconduct to support its claim that dealerships are predatory. (The non-profit legal clinic is pushing legislation this year to increase consumer protection around auto financing.)

“They are mission oriented and they have a mindset of something that they believe about an industry,” Miller said. “And so they need to do what they need to do to demonstrate that they’re correct.”

Springfield Buick GMC, part of the Autosaver group, on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Taken in aggregate and combined with civil court cases, however, the CAP complaints can help outline a pattern. And looking through the 280 complaints filed against the Autosaver Group in the past six years, a pattern does emerge.

The highest number of Autosaver Group complaints are directed towards Capitol City Auto Mart, which has 143 complaints from the past six years. The Auto Mart is comprised of Capitol City Kia (which got 39 stand-alone complaints) and Capitol City Buick GMC (which got 27). The other 77 complaints were against Capitol City Auto Mart as a collective. Springfield Buick GMC, the Autosaver dealership with the second most filings, has 69. 

Other dealerships garnered far fewer complaints. Some, such as the Autosaver Outlet, had none.

But across all of the dealerships, criticisms touch on similar themes. There are specific advertisements that people find misleading. There are customers who spend hours in dealerships feeling bullied or ambushed. There are allegations of loan fraud.

According to several complaints, the dealerships didn’t inform customers about crashes that cars had been in, and salespeople came across as “unprofessional” and “threatening.” 

Pazdan, the consumer rights attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said she had worked with seven clients who had purchased cars from the Autosaver Group in the past two years. Of those seven complaints, six were regarding the Capitol City dealerships.

“This is a comparatively large number of complaints against one dealer group,” Pazdan wrote in an email. “I would say roughly 20% of the auto clients who have contacted us with complaints have purchased vehicles at one of the Autosaver dealerships.”

Pazdan noted that due to funding limitations and specific client criteria, the nonprofit sees a “very small subsection of consumers with auto sales or financing complaints.”

One of Pazdan’s current cases against Capitol City Auto Mart involves a 67-year-old man from East Calais. Howard Fletcher was injured while at his job in 2002, and he has relied on Social Security income ever since. His problems with the Autosaver Group began when Fletcher bought a Dodge Challenger from Capitol City Kia in April 2016: He had gone in to have the oil changed on his truck, and once there, a salesman talked him into a new vehicle.

According to the court complaint, when Fletcher requested a copy of his loan application from his bank, he was “shocked” to find that it listed an income approximately four times the income that he had reported to Capitol City Kia. 

The court document states that Fletcher suffered “financial distress, including food insecurity and heating fuel shortages, and emotional distress” as a result of the loan fraud. 

And then Capitol City Buick GMC “defrauded” Fletcher into trading in the Dodge Challenger for an even worse deal.

In April 2019, Fletcher received a promotional flyer with a pull-tab game that told Fletcher he had won $1,000 that he could claim by visiting Capitol City Buick GMC. Fletcher walked into the dealership and said he was there to pick up his prize.

“The salesman said they could deal with the prize later and immediately began asking Plaintiff questions including his name, address, and Social Security number,” the complaint reads.

Then the salesman pulled Fletcher into a web of “aggressive sales tactics.” Fletcher tried to leave multiple times, only to be stopped at the door. The salespeople allegedly omitted information, named different prices, and promised Fletcher a $4,500 rebate in the mail that they still have not delivered.

Finally, Fletcher — “who is disabled and was exhausted” — agreed to sign off on the car. Once again, the court documents allege that the dealership inflated Fletcher’s income to make him appear to qualify for a loan.

As for the pull tab prize, the one that said Fletcher won $1,000? Just before Fletcher left the dealership, the first salesman scanned the tab to “determine what amount” Fletcher really won. On top of all the debt, alleged loan fraud, and “emotional distress,” Fletcher walked away the lucky recipient of $5.

The cases Pazdan takes on against auto dealers tend to end in settlements. In January 2019, Pazdan fought for an elderly couple who relied on Social Security had their income falsified, which cost them thousands. The case ended out of court.

“I know they’re salesmen, and they’re supposed to sell a vehicle,” plaintiff Grace Lettow said. “But why lie about our income?” 

‘A pretty forgiving company’

The salespeople at the Autosaver Group, like almost any car dealership, have a financial incentive to get customers out the door with a car. Their pay is partly based on commission — they make more money when people buy cars. 

Toll said he is hesitant to fire employees for first offenses, even when the offense is something like income inflation.

“We’re a pretty forgiving company,” he said. “In order to get fired from our company, first offense — the only way you can be assured you get fired on your first offense [is to] buy a car from somebody else. We won’t put up with it. Besides that, we believe in second chances.”

Abel Toll said he can’t remember an instance of firing an Autosaver salesperson for misconduct. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Toll could not remember a specific time he had fired an employee for loan fraud, although Sipples said the company had done so in the past. Both agreed that it was a rare occurrence. 

Toll said he doesn’t believe commissions foster a culture of aggressive sales techniques. The company docks any commissions for sales that it finds to be fraudulent, and it is experimenting with an increased base pay in one of its New Hampshire locations.

“I don’t think it makes any difference how a salesperson operates, whether they’re getting commissions … or whether they’re just getting paid a salary for selling cars,” Toll said. “Because if they don’t sell a certain number of cars, they’re not going to get salaries because they’re not going to be around.”

Instead, Toll and Sipples emphasized that criticisms of both the company and the industry are often overblown.

“We take every complaint seriously because our goal is to provide outstanding customer service,” Sipples wrote. “That said, over the past six years, only 0.06% of our dealership transactions have resulted in a formal consumer complaint.”

The Autosaver Group sold more than 14,000 vehicles in 2018, and it had more than 59,000 service department transactions. The 0.06% figure includes both totals.

“I think it’s a pretty honorable business and that the number of complaints are very, very, very few. It’s a very, very small percentage of transactions that people even allege that that happens,” Toll said. “So I don’t think it’s the industry. And I think if you write it that way, that’s an unfair slant.”

But Clark, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said that car complaints are among the most common concerns her office receives — at least in the “top five.”

Pazdan, too, has found that the problem is systemic.

“The concern from Vermont Legal Aid’s perspective, is that … we know that a number of auto dealerships across Vermont continue to violate consumer protection laws and engage in fraud at the expense of poor, elderly and disabled consumers,” she wrote. “The most vulnerable car purchasers are often the easiest prey for these tactics, with devastating consequences for those individuals and their families.”

As for the Toll dealerships in particular? They’re not the only dealerships that Pazdan finds concerning. They’re not the only ones that have been accused of loan fraud, false advertising, or income inflation. But Abel Toll sells a lot of cars — and the years of court complaints suggest he might not always make those sales responsibly.

Lettow, one of the plaintiffs against the Autosaver Group, had previously purchased three cars from the dealership. She was a loyal customer before learning about the income inflation. Now, she won’t be going back.

“I’ve heard other stories from people that I used to work with, that have gone there and bought vehicles,” Lettow said. “It’s like, I wish you hadn’t gone there. I wish I had known I would have talked you out of it. Because I think they do this to a lot of people.”

Colin Meyn contributed reporting. 

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