It is the Gold Coast 4WD company that promises the best way to see outback Australia, but more than a dozen customers have told the ABC that behind the attractive promotional brochures, they believe it is little more than an elaborate scam.
The complaints have prompted an investigation by Australia’s peak competition and consumer regulator, the ACCC.
On its website, Australian 4WD Hire advertises off-road insurance, a full briefing on pick up and no hidden fees.
Last month, LNP member for Clayfield Tim Nicholls told Queensland Parliament the man operating Australian 4WD Hire, Vitali Roesch, had been ripping off tourists in an “unscrupulous, unfair, fraudulent” scam.
Mr Nicholls said the scam involved the company unreasonably charging clients when the vehicles broke down and threatening them with legal action if they did not pay up.
The company denies any wrongdoing.
The company’s former director, Mr Roesch, who is now the fleet manager, said the drivers who have complained were negligent and should have read the fine print in their contracts first.
He said the company had serviced 9,000 customers in the past five years and 99 per cent were happy.
But many customers contacted by the ABC — some of whom are now being sued — believe they were the victims of a fraud, designed at the very least to take their security bond, often as much as $5,000.
Others faced much higher costs.
At least 10 cases have been lodged in the Magistrates Court in the past two years, with some clients settling and others vowing to fight.
Tasmanian couple Stuart Edwards and Janetta Welinska are being sued for more than $54,300 after the Landcruiser they hired became bogged, then suffered water damage.
In Melbourne, racing car driver Gavin Bullas is fighting a claim for more than $33,000.
Mr Roesch said the company instituted court action only when individuals refused to pay for damage, but admitted most would settle beforehand.
He said he welcomed any investigation.
“If it’s mechanical breakdown we don’t even charge people for that but … we are talking here in these specific cases gross misuse of vehicles and negligence, that’s why you end up in trouble,” he said.
Online reviews revealed many complaints about the company.
The ABC has also seen evidence of critical reviews posted, only to be removed at the authors’ request after the company threatened defamation proceedings.
Denigrating the company, including leaving “negative reviews” online, is forbidden under the terms and conditions hirers must sign before receiving the keys.
Who is Vitali Roesch?
- Vitali Roesch was born in Kazakhstan and moved to Australia in May 1998.
- He lost a bid to have his firearms licence reinstated after QCAT ruled he demonstrated “irresponsible and antisocial conduct indicating that he is a risk to public safety”.
- Mr Roesch resigned as director of Australian 4WD Hire in October 2015 and handed sole directorship to his wife Marnya Kosukhina.
- He was declared bankrupt in February 2016 and is yet to be discharged.
- In March 2016 Mr Roesch was sentenced to 18 months’ jail for assaulting his wife, suspended immediately.
- The magistrate said Mr Roesch had “given her a fairly decent flogging by the time she decided to escape”.
- Mr Roesch said he had “paid his dues” and for his “name to be dragged through the mud” was “very low and plain disgusting”.
The fine print
When customers of Australian 4WD Hire sign the terms and conditions, they are agreeing to let the company track their vehicle’s every move.
The rentals are fitted with GPS technology, capable of revealing where, when and how fast drivers go.
GPS technology is not uncommon in the industry, but some Australian 4WD Hire clients contended the company used it to argue drivers breached the terms and conditions, costing them some or all of their bond.
They also disputed the accuracy of its findings.
A breach of the terms and conditions can include going over the speed limit, driving after sunset outside of built-up areas, crossing creeks or rivers and driving off-road in wet conditions.
The $33,000 breakdown
Mr Bullas is locked in a legal battle with Australian 4WD Hire after a trip to Cape York in 2016 resulted in a massive bill.
Mr Bullas, 54, his wife, and 80-year-old father were travelling the Old Telegraph Track when he says their hired Landcruiser, which had done nearly 370,000 kilometres, showed signs of contaminated fuel.
A mechanic cleaned out the fuel tank and they refuelled, but about five kilometres on, Mr Bullas said the turbo blew up.
“He [Vitali] rings me up saying that we’d blown the engine up and it was our fault and he was taking money straight out of our credit card for the insurance on the vehicle,” Mr Bullas said.
He said they were told to find their own way home.
Court documents show the company argues the engine ran out of oil.
“I explained to him, mate I race cars, I know what the engine has done,” Mr Bullas said.
“I know that we didn’t blow it up, I know that we didn’t get a red light on the dash. I know that it didn’t drop any oil pressure,” Mr Bullas said.
He later found out the company had reported him, his father and wife to a reporting agency for bad debt, putting a stop on all their credit cards.
Mr Bullas said the company had recently offered to settle the case, but he was determined to fight.
“This guy seems to prey on the fact that people have problems with the car and I think he makes his money out of actually suing,” he said.
Insurance is voided, $54,000 for water damage
Stuart Edwards is also in the middle of a court battle, with the company seeking more than $54,000.
The 4WD Mr Edwards and his wife hired in Broome in October 2016 became bogged on a gazetted road on their first day.
While they went to get help, Mr Edward said the tides came in, submerging their car.
The company argues the vehicle had extensive water damage.
Smart Corporations Pty Ltd, on behalf of Australian 4WD Hire, lodged a civil suit against Mr Edwards for the vehicle finance payout and loss of income during the repair time — a total of $54,329.47.
“In all dealings we had with the company they had told us that the vehicle was comprehensively insured, on the front page of their website it says, ‘off-road insurance’,” Mr Edwards said.
“It’s not negligent behaviour, it’s an accident — that’s what insurance is for.”
Failure to adhere to the terms and conditions means the insurance can be voided.
According to documents lodged in the Brisbane Magistrates Court, Mr Edwards breached the hire contract by failing to return the vehicle to the company in good operating condition and failing to immediately notify them of the damage.
Mr Edwards disputed this and said the hefty legal bill had taken a massive toll on him and his pregnant wife.
“It’s been completely unreasonable, and it’s affected our lives in a way it shouldn’t have,” he said.
GPS tracking used to issue speeding violations
Israeli tourist Yael Garty is tired of talking about how she lost her $5,000 bond for allegedly speeding during a month-long camping trip in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in 2017.
After adventuring with her husband and son, Dr Garty flew home to Israel, having returned the car, she said, in clean condition.
A week later she received an email from Australian 4WD Hire administrative assistant Christine Burgess stating the vehicle was returned dirty and with a “shocking DBR (driving behaviour record)”.
The company compiled a DBR by collating the GPS tracking data.
“Your driving behaviour over the course of your hire was unlike anything we have ever seen, you managed to accumulate more violations, and reach higher speeds than any other customer in the history of our business,” Ms Burgess said.
“In total you have managed to accumulate 2,673 speeding violations with 5km grace calculated in and a maximum of 153kmph, as well as consistently travelling more than 60kmph while off-road.
“Just one speeding violation is grounds for complete forfeiture of your bond, let alone 2,673.”
The alleged speeding violations clocked by the GPS often appear just minutes, sometimes seconds, apart on the same stretch of road.
Australian 4WD Hire said Dr Garty had also accumulated two speeding fines from police.
She said she has never seen them.
The ABC has asked Mr Roesch for copies, but he said any speeding fines were returned to the issuing department with the driver’s name.
It was up to the department to re-issue the fine.
Above: The Speed Violation Report sent by the company to Yael Garty and her husband Momy, showing alleged speeding violations during their month-long trip through the NT and WA.
When Dr Garty, a paediatric cardiologist, asked for an explanation, she was given what she described as a “threatening response” from Australian 4WD Hire fleet manager Jacob Kuykendall.
“We suggest that you stop embarrassing yourself, get the facts right and that you seek legal advice and get their professional opinion about your legal position,” Mr Kuykendall said.
“Before you do or say anything that you might regret and will be held accountable for later.”
Dr Garty said she was outraged but didn’t have the money to fight it in court.
Orthopaedic surgeon Ian Davison is just as furious.
He had no issues with the company until his return from a trip through WA when he received an email claiming he had breached speed limits causing “excessive wear and tear” on the vehicle.
The company would keep $1,200 of his bond.
Dr Davison tried to phone but received another email from Ms Burgess telling him to “stop embarrassing yourself, get the facts right” and seek legal advice.
“It’s really just a rort, it’s a scam,” Dr Davison said.
In his response, Mr Roesch insisted no customer was ever penalised for slightly exceeding the limit on a handful of occasions.
“The penalty will only and has only ever been imposed when there is evidence of consistent, excessive high range speeding over long distances,” he states.
Several hirers, similarly penalised, have questioned the accuracy of the GPS readings.
Documents lodged in Parliament by Mr Nicholls refer to errors in the driver behaviour reports: occasions when they were listed as 120kph when the actual speed limit was 130kph, or 100kph when the legal limit was 110kph.
CTRACK, which provides the GPS hardware, told the ABC it was “absolutely not aware” that Australian 4WD Hire was using the system to issue so-called speeding violations and financially penalise customers.
However, in a statement managing director Max Verberne said he was not able to comment on how private customers used the system.
The Office of Fair Trading received 19 complaints against Australian 4WD Hire in 2017, but in a statement said complaints did not indicate a breach of Australian Consumer Law, capable of enforcement action.
The ABC has since seen letters to complainants advising them the ACCC has now started an investigation into the company’s activities.
Roesch adamant he’s done nothing wrong
In an extensive email to the ABC, Mr Roesch defended the company’s practices, saying 90 per cent of customers received their full bond back at the end of the hire.
“We can assure you, had we been operating in the ways we have been accused of practising, we would have been shut down years ago — especially given the amount of attention drawn to us when taking customers to court for non-payments,” he stated.
“If we were ripping people off, or scamming customers, it would be quite absurd for us to be taking them to court, where we are fully exposed.
“We have never, and will never, withhold any customer’s bond or charge any amount without clear reasoning and full evidence for doing so.”
Mr Roesch highlighted a litany of the “most horrendous treatment” of vehicles experienced by the company, including chasing wild animals through paddocks, knowingly putting in incorrect fuel because it was cheaper and using the cars for drug runs.
“The real ‘well-rehearsed scam’ or ‘rip-off merchant’ in this situation is an MP, Mr Tim Nicholls, using his position in parliament to try and gain fame and popularity in the eyes of the community at the expense of other people’s misery,” he states.
“We have always operated in an ethical and moral way towards our customers and have treated each person as fairly as the next.”
Mr Roesch pointed to positive reviews of the company in a 24-hour period last week.
“We went from having nothing but eight negative responses (on Productreview.com.au) from the small minority of customers that have been spreading this false information across the web, to having an above average rating with more genuine 5-star reviews than negative ones,” he wrote.
Threatened with defamation after bad reviews
Another review site Hit the Road Rentals tells a different story. It lists and reviews about 300 campervan hire companies worldwide.
Director Tim Ahern said Australian 4WD Hire was the only company where people left reviews of their experience and then asked within a week for them to be removed because they had been threatened with legal action and losing their bond.
It prompted him to put a warning on his website. He also was threatened with defamation.
David Bell wrote a review complaining he was not informed early enough that he would not be able to drive at night.
He had flown from the US to take his children up the WA coast and breached the rule twice, costing him $1,000.
“I posted a review online very clearly explaining the ins and outs of what happened and then within a couple of days I get a letter from a lawyer in Queensland saying cease and desist, demanding I remove all of my online reviews and apologise otherwise they will sue me for defamation and $10,000 per post,” Mr Bell said.
He ignored the request.
A link to the company’s terms and conditions can be found on its website.
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