Beware the windshield bullies Their calling card: High-pressure sales tactics

Broken windshield -- Thursday July 12, 2012. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

The salesman kept banging on the door of Mary Grady's West Ashley home, even after her son told him to go away. He insisted he could help them replace the damaged windshield on their van for free.

The problem was, the windshield didn't need replacing. The damage consisted of nothing more than a little nick that wasn't bothering anyone.

Still, the salesman persisted.

“I came to the door and told him, 'You've already been told 'no.' There shouldn't be a second time. Get off our property now. We are not interested,” Grady said.

The man finally left, but salesmen just like him are trolling Lowcountry streets daily trying to drum up business in the highly competitive auto glass replacement industry.

They sweep through neighborhoods, stake out commercial parking lots and try to snag people stopping for gas, a car wash or a trip to the mall.

Known as “glass harvesters,” they point out imperfections and tout the advantages of getting a “free” replacement windshield under a state law that requires insurance companies to replace auto glass at no cost to customers with comprehensive coverage.

Consumer advocates say the practice can result in fraudulent claims, causing insurers to replace windshields with minor cracks and chips that could be repaired rather than replaced.

The difference could mean an extra $400 in the glass company's coffers for each job. But in the end, the insurers often pass on those losses to consumers in the form of higher rates.

“Unfortunately, South Carolinians are a prime target for 'glass harvesting' or 'windshield bullies,'?” said Russ Dubisky, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service.

“In addition to their unsolicited and aggressive sales pitches, glass harvesters can drive up the cost of insurance over time, as they often increase claims and expenses for insurers.”

According to the most recent data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, released in 2010, South Carolina ranked among the top five states in the nation for questionable auto glass claims. Nationally, insurers have called auto glass fraud a multi-million-dollar problem.

A mixed approach

The state has taken a mixed approach to the problem. On one hand, Gov. Nikki Haley recently signed a law that seeks to curb some of the more aggressive sales tactics of the harvesters, such as banning pitches for free windshields and work that doesn't need to be done.

At the same time, the state Department of Workforce and Development is helping some of these companies recruit new workers by posting openings on its online job board and emailing help-wanted ads to thousands of unemployed workers across the state.

Grady, the West Ashley resident, is among those unemployed. She said she was stunned to see state emails about job openings at one auto glass sales company that has been dinged in online “rip-off report” claims. “Doesn't anyone go through those and use some oversight?” she said.

Adrienne Fairwell, spokeswoman for the workforce agency, said the agency offers the ads as a service, and it's up to applicants to decide whether they want to work for such a company. She said her agency's job is not to vet companies. “We are responsible for putting people back to work.”

'Gone tomorrow'

South Carolina is a prime target for harvesters because it is one of only four states in the nation to have a law requiring insurers to cover windshield replacements with no deductible, Dubisky said. That's why several out-of-state companies have set up satellite operations here in recent years, to get a toe-hold in the market.

That bothers local operators like John Downs, who owns Charleston Auto Glass and has been in the business for 15 years. Downs said the outsiders often operate under names that mimic local businesses and sour people on the industry by hounding customers, doing shoddy work, using low-grade glass and offering worthless warranties.

The companies in question deny those claims.

“These people are here today and gone tomorrow,” Downs said. “And then what about the customer?”

Downs is passionate about calling attention to what he describes as fly-by-night competitors, and he has used recent television commercials to caution customers about using companies they encounter on the street.

Robert Evans is unimpressed by Downs' approach. As a salesman for McLeod Auto Glass in Mount Pleasant, he spends his days hanging out at the Americana Car Wash in Mount Pleasant, inspecting vehicles that come in for a cleaning to see if they have windshield damage that warrants replacement glass.

Evans said some competitors try to make people like him look like bandits, when all he's trying to do is drum up legitimate business. His company is approved by insurance companies, has a local shop, pays taxes and even sponsors a little league team. And he's not about to recommend a windshield be replaced when that isn't necessary, he said.

Cold-calling

Readers from Sangaree to James Island have reported being approached by door-to-door canvassers in recent months. Some found them to be polite and helpful; others said they were annoying and intrusive.

One such company is advertising for field workers to sell “a FREE service” that can earn them between $500 and $75,000 annually. “We are in the business of Auto Glass and business is GOOD,” the ad reads. “1 out of every 5 windshields is damaged in SC.”

Tammy Burnette, who works for Downs, said she left a previous job at a West Ashley company that did cold calls because she felt like they were pressuring folks to get work that wasn't necessary.

They went from neighborhood to neighborhood, knocking on doors and pushing people to sign up, she said. “I didn't like the way they went about it.”

The company in question was Port City Promotions, also known as CAI. It operates out of a nondescript, second-floor office in a Sam Rittenberg Boulevard shopping center.

Chase Blocker, president of Port City Promotions, initially refused to answer questions about his business when approached by The Post and Courier. He later agreed to answer questions in writing.

One company's defense

Blocker said his company is a marketing business and does not replace auto glass. Its workers canvass neighbors to generate leads for its client, DNS Auto Glass, an Arizona-based company. Port City assists customers with filing insurance claims and paperwork, while DNS handles the actual windshield work.

Both companies and their methods occasionally have been slammed on online consumer websites, but Blocker insisted that “our customers have been satisfied with our services and are pleased to walk away with the peace of mind that comes with having a safer vehicle.”

“Port City Promotions focuses on customer safety,” he wrote in an email. “Our representatives canvass door-to-door and business-to-business to reach customers who have unsafe windshields and provides a simple and convenient way to help customers become both safe and compliant with South Carolina windshield laws.”

Calls to DNS went unreturned. The company has a C+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and its phone rings at the same Arizona headquarters as Coast to Coast Auto Glass.

Coast to Coast, which holds an F rating with the Better Business Bureau, ran into trouble with Charleston police two years ago after soliciting door-to-door without a permit in the city. Police also cautioned residents about “numerous articles warning consumers about this company.”

Preferred vendors

Coast to Coast also drew unfavorable attention in Florida when one of its workers was charged with intentionally damaging car windshields before making a pitch to the vehicles' owners to have the glass replaced at no cost, according to GlassBytes auto glass industry news.

Calls to Coast to Coast also went unanswered last week.

Dubisky, of the insurance news service, and various local auto glass specialists recommend doing homework before replacing your windshield. Contact your insurance company for a list of preferred vendors, consult with the Better Business Bureau and make sure you know what you're getting into when you sign the dotted line, they said.

“What we are trying to do is make sure customers and drivers out there know they don't have to sign any paper right away,” Dubisky said.

“And the bottom line is, there is no such thing as a free windshield. You might think it's free because there is no deductible, but you are going to pay for it in the long run in the form of higher rates because insurance companies are getting hammered by these claims and losses.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.