It was summer, and Alex Hernandez was looking for a new job.
A college student, Hernandez, 20, of Alsip, had the price of higher education on his mind as he scoured the Internet looking for something with flexible hours and high pay. An ad on Craigslist caught his eye one day. It offered a $500 guarantee per week during training with the potential to earn between $38,000 and $140,000 a year in the first year.
The ad was for employment at a company called Continental Toyota in the village of McCook.
Andrew Yang, 24, of Crystal Lake, saw the ad too. He particularly liked the fact that they were looking for “Honest and ethical applicants only” for a job in sales. Having worked in sales before, he found the line refreshing, and he decided to register his interest.
Likewise, Jeremy Armbruster, 31, of Aurora, was looking for a new line of work. A father of three, Armbruster was looking for something that would pay better than his job as a machinist in an automotive shop rebuilding engines.
Like the others, Armbruster also replied to the Craigslist post seeking sales staff at Continental Toyota. He was overjoyed when he got a call back and an interview, and after, was told he had the job. He quit his mechanic position to attend a training session the next week.
At the end of the day’s first training session, though, he grew concerned. A man named Tom Taylor, who was organizing the training and said he worked for Continental Toyota, wanted $600 the next day for training and materials.
Unknown to the trainees, Taylor never worked as an employee for Continental Toyota. Instead, he worked at a consulting company called United Consulting Services Auto Inc. (UCS).
“Of course it was a red flag,” Armbruster said of the idea of paying for training on a job he was hired for.
But Continental Toyota was a large and reputable company in the community. In fact, the training session was being held at the Continental Mitsubishi dealership just down the street. And, the money would be refunded, pending a drug and background check, Taylor promised, after they were employed for 90 days.
The money was a lot for Armbruster, but with what he could make on the new job, it seemed like a risk worth taking. He figured it was designed to weed out uncommitted applicants. So he withdrew $600 and handed it over in cash the next day.
It was money he was saving to send his daughter to a national dance competition.
He wasn’t alone. Six others in the training session, including Hernandez and Yang, all guaranteed jobs by Taylor, also forked over the cash sum.
They attended training all week, were interviewed by Continental Group managers, but in the end, there was no job. And the money – the down payment on a new future – was never returned.
“I’ve never been scammed like this before,” Armbruster said. “I’m a cautious guy. I gave this my all.”
Dan Santucci, 60, of La Grange, has had a hard couple of years. Recently, he’d been living with family and friends after a slow financial decline. Previously, Santucci worked in commercial real estate financing and as an independent broker in Chicago. When the real estate industry fell on hard times after the collapse of the housing market, Santucci found himself borrowing against the condo he owned, and a little more than two years later, he lost it in foreclosure.
“Auto sales were not big on my list of what to do,” Santucci said.
But with $1,200 left in his bank account, he saw the ad promoting a sales position at Continental Toyota. He figured he’d done sales before; the product was different, but he was willing to learn.
“I’d filled out a hundred applications,” Santucci said. “I thought I’d bite the bullet and thought, ‘this is what I have to do.’”
So, he called about the job and spoke with Taylor, who told him to come in for an interview.
According to Santucci, he interviewed with Taylor for about 15 minutes on July 16 and had a nice conversation. Like the others, Taylor told him he was hired. He was to come in for training the next day.
Of the seven applicants who went through the training session, all reported similar meetings.
Cash or cashiers check only
Nine men showed up at Continental Mitsubishi in Countryside on the first day of training. They were told they would receive 20 hours of training in selling cars by Taylor and a manual titled, “The World’s Best Automotive Sales Training Manual.”
Taylor told the trainees that he had an office down the street at Continental Toyota and was a general manager of a Continental business. According to the men in the training session, it wouldn’t be the last time Taylor led them to believe he had a long history with the Continental dealerships.
Despite repeated requests for Taylor to comment, he did not return calls for this story. Representatives of UCS declined to comment on the story or to confirm or deny Taylor’s employment with UCS.
All the men said they believed him – the training was being held at Continental Mitsubishi and the posted job listing only listed the Continental name.
However, according to the majority of the men who went through Taylor’s training session, their training in auto sales took up very little of that time.
“We probably got no more than 12 hours with him,” Santucci said.
A lot of that time, they said, was spent by Taylor telling stories about his success in the auto sales industry and about matters unrelated to the training. In interviews with Suburban Life, five of seven trainees reported that they got nothing out of the session.
At the end of the first day, Taylor told the men they would need to bring $600 in cash or a cashier’s check for that amount the following day to continue. They were promised it would be refunded, plus another $29, after they had been employed in good standing for 90 days. The men believed they were already guaranteed jobs – Taylor had told them as much, they said – and they would start receiving $500 a week during additional training the following week after they had been placed at a dealership.
The next day, two men had not returned. The rest each paid their $600.
“I had a feeling that I was being scammed, but at that point I was desperate for a job and would do anything,” said Hernandez, the college student.
His family had recently told him they would not be able to pay for his college tuition the following semester, and he needed the money soon for school.
“I still had a few years left [of school] and I wanted to make enough to have the money to graduate,” Hernandez said.
‘We were scammed, too’
The problem was, Taylor wasn’t an employee of any Continental dealership. He never had been. The consulting company Taylor worked for sent him to Continental Toyota just before the training began to help them hire people from the area for three open sales jobs, according to Dennis Pecho, general manager of Continental Toyota.
“Up until he walked in the door, I didn’t know who Tom Taylor was,” said Pecho. “We were looking for some salespeople who were looking for work without much experience [in auto sales].”
Pecho said Continental had never used UCS before, so he made a few calls.
Of the references Tom Taylor supplied, two of the three reported hiring people afterwards and said it was a good program. Satisfied, Pecho said he didn’t look much more into it.
“We were scammed, too,” Pecho said.
Pecho said he never did a Google search on UCS. The reference calls were the entirety of the background check, he said. Taylor was given a conference room at Continental Mitsubishi to hold the training sessions and Continental left him there to do his thing.
“In hindsight, it would have made sense to have someone in the meetings,” Pecho said after he learned of the claims Taylor made about working for the dealership.
Training ends, so do offers
On the final day of training, the men were supposed to meet with representatives of Continental Toyota, Continental Mitsubishi and Continental Nissan. It was a simple matter of doing a final interview and the dealerships picking which trainees would go where, Taylor assured them.
Just before the training, the men were given a waiver to sign by Taylor. Those who read it, did so quickly, they admitted. Several were concerned about a line in the waiver about there being no guarantees of employment.
“He had our money already, so there was no way to back out of it,” Hernandez said.
The others felt the same way, but they figured it was a legal formality.
“I thought we just needed to do it quickly to get to the interviews,” Armbruster said.
Armbruster said he was worried about the line, but at that point, he had already quit his other job. There seemed to be no other option than to sign the form. If he didn’t, he’d still lose his $600, because he would not have met the employment requirements of working for 90 days.
The men began to talk with one another as they left the interviews. Tom Taylor had suddenly disappeared, and only Continental Toyota had sent representatives to do the interviews.
At one point, a representative for Continental Mitsubishi came into the room and asked if anyone spoke Spanish. Ishmael Rodriguez, 28, of Chicago, raised his hand. He was eventually offered a job with Continental Mitsubishi and is the only trainee still working with a Continental dealership.
“It was unusual, to be honest,” Rodriguez said later of the training experience.
Rodriguez said he was shocked to learn that he was one of just three men from the group who had been hired. When he spoke to Suburban Life in September, he said he thought Taylor was an employee of a Continental dealership.
“To be honest, I found it helpful,” Rodriguez said. “But I don’t think it was worth $600.”
Another trainee, Mike Timmons, said he was hired by Continental briefly, but left soon after for a job at another dealership.
Rodriguez and Timmons were offered sales jobs, which Continental then trained them for at no charge. A third man who was hired, Carl Jensen, said the work he was offered was nothing like he was promised.
“They led me to believe I would be working with customers,” Jensen said. “It was all phone work.”
He said his managers at Continental didn’t seem to know anything about any paid training he might have done, or about promises for a specific job in sales. They knew nothing about him receiving his $600 back after 90 days of employment. He left after three days on the job, frustrated at the experience.
In the end
None of the other trainees received a job offer. Two said they were able to get in contact with UCS, and they said the company agreed to refund their money. Despite some agreeing to sign yet another waiver, it never came.
According to Pecho, Continental isn’t to blame for the scam. Some of the trainees, including Hernandez, disagree. Hernandez said he has filed a claim in small claims court against Continental Toyota to try to get his $600 back. He has a court date pending for Oct. 29.
According to Pecho, Continental never got a dime of the money the men paid to Taylor, including funds from a trainee who paid with a cashier’s check made out to Continental Toyota. According to Pecho, they never received that.
“Every one of us in there were unemployed and were told we’d have a check for $500 in two weeks. Everyone in that room was counting on that,” Santucci said.
Santucci said he knows Continental didn’t take his money, but he still holds them responsible. He believes they should have done their homework before agreeing to work with UCS.
Pecho said he wishes he had done more screening beforehand.
“This went badly, there’s no doubt,” Pecho said. “But we did hire people. They have jobs. We don’t see where we did anything wrong.”
Pecho said that making the trainees pay for their own training – even after being “hired” – didn’t sound that unusual to him. He said employees sometimes pay for business or motivational seminars to keep up with the industry, Pecho said. Continental covers the costs for employees to attend supplemental training for the brands they carry.
That said, Pecho said he wouldn’t dream of working with UCS again. They even called him recently and told him they could send someone other than Taylor next time. Pecho said he asked to talk to the owner before he would consider it and was told that wouldn’t be possible. Pecho said he’s made calls to other dealerships warning them about working with the company.
In the end, none of the men got their $600 back, a financial hit for all of them.
“I had money set away to send [his daughter] to her nationals dance competition. I thought I could use that and then pay it back before,” Armbruster said. “It was money I wasn’t supposed to touch. Now, I don’t have it.”