Buying speakers from guys in the parking lot?
A word, please …
By Peter Gorman
Two well-dressed young men were standing near an unmarked white van in the parking lot of a liquor store in south Fort Worth a few weeks ago when a shiny new black pickup with extra chrome pulled in. The pair were at the driver’s door before he could get out of the truck. “Yo, buddy – we’ve got a couple of extra sets of high-end speakers we’re trying to get rid of, and you look like a guy who appreciates good music. These are $3,000 speakers, and we’re letting them go for just $1,800 … .”
The spiel was the beginning of what’s known as the White Van Speaker Scam, a technique so long-running and storied that it’s got its own Wikipedia page. It involves selling cheap audio speakers under names that either sound legitimate or are close enough to the names of genuine top-flight brands that some might mistake for the real thing. The hustle is aimed almost exclusively at young men in expensive vehicles. And it’s back in full swing again in the Metroplex, thanks in part to the cash flowing from the Barnett Shale boom to so many young gasfield workers.
The scam works like this: Two young men, dressed either in nice street clothes or blue-collar type uniforms, approach other young men driving snazzy vehicles. Favorite places are the parking lots of check-cashing stores, banks, and malls, though the retail artistes have also been known to flag down people who are driving by. The men typically explain that they’ve just installed a sound system in someone’s home or that they’ve made a delivery to a store, but, either way, they ended up with extra speakers. Not only that, but the speakers have been marked as paid – and they’ll gladly show the receipt – so the men can either return the extras to the boss or sell them before heading back to the shop. Sometimes the men explain that they hate their boss because he regularly shorts their paychecks or maybe just that since the equipment is paid for, why shouldn’t they make a couple of bucks and give you the deal of your life?
Toby, a musician who didn’t want his last name used, worked a few weeks for an outfit operating out of a warehouse on Corporate Drive in Arlington. “I needed a job, and so when I heard about this, I thought it was a natural fit for me,” he explained. At first he thought the speakers were good-quality merchandise that a big retailer had bought too many of and that they were being sold out of vans to keep from having to offer lower prices in the store. “I mean, they look nice, they’re boxed real well. And we even got copies of an audio magazine that had an ad for the brands we were selling that showed them going for $2,000 and $3,000 a pair,” he said.
For the first few days, Toby was assigned as the third man in a van to learn the ropes. But after less than a week, he’d made several sales and arrived at work one day to discover he had a van and partner of his own. “Heck, it was a company van, but the company paid for everything except gas. I took it home with me. And as long as I worked for them, that was going to be my van,” he said.
Each day, he reported to the Corporate Drive headquarters of XRT Distributing, pulled his van into a large garage, and watched as the doors closed behind him. “I thought they did that because there was a lot of valuable merchandise in there,” he said. “Now I think it was because they didn’t want disgruntled customers seeing all those white vans being loaded with the same speakers they bought.”
He and his partner would load the van with tower speakers, an allegedly high-quality wireless 5.1 “surround-sound” speaker system, and rear-projection television sets. The teams had to pay the company $230 per set. “Anything else we made, me and my partner split,” he said.
Toby said it wasn’t difficult to spot targets and that, when people thought they were getting $3,000 speakers for $1,400, it was easy to make a sale. “They’d tell me they wanted a better price, since I hadn’t paid anything for them,” so he would agree to come down from that first offer. “Best price I got in the two weeks I worked selling them was $800. That was $570 to split with my partner. And if he sold a pair or two that day, well, you could go home with several hundred dollars of tax-free money a day.”
The speakers worked, he said, but they were very cheaply made. “My band was recording a new CD, and the sound was awful. So I asked the sound man what kind of speakers he was using, and he said ‘Hey, these are White Van speakers.’ He thought they were great; I thought they were awful.”
Spokesman Lt. Paul Henderson said the scam hasn’t come up on the Fort Worth Police Department’s radar screen yet.
That’s not surprising, Toby said, since many buyers think they’re getting stolen goods and so “are not likely to go to the police even if they discover they were cheated. And, really, the police couldn’t do anything unless someone could prove the speakermen lied.”
If the scam is still new to plenty of young males behind the wheel of flashy rides, lots of other folks have known about it, in some cases for 20 years. A Google search produced hundreds of thousands of hits for “white van speaker scam.” Wikipedia devotes an extensive entry to it. But the manager of XRT Distributing, Jim Truver, denied that his speakers are a rip-off. “I guarantee that what we sell you is good. You will not find anything at Best Buy or Circuit City that looks as good and sounds as good for the same money. I run into people every day who are happy with what they bought.” He also said he never tells his salesmen to lie about the speakers or suggest they could be sold for near-retail price on eBay.
He conceded that there also have been a number of complaints, “but those are coming from people who thought they could turn it around and sell them for a big profit on the internet.”
Truver said he runs between three and six vans daily in the Metroplex. He also said that XRT is a stand-alone company, not connected with any of the other white van operations in the U.S. and elsewhere. “I can’t stand up for what those other people are selling,” he said.
Toby said that’s baloney and that the company’s operations under different names in other cities and states were openly talked about. He left after two weeks, he said, because he couldn’t stand the deception.
“We were selling this 5.1 wireless ‘surround’ system. And you know what? It was only wireless till you got it home and had to connect the wiring,” he said. “The thing was, at the end of the day, you’re selling shit that’s not worth what you’re asked to pay for it, and you’re paying it because we’re lying to you. We might tell you we’d just installed them in Deion Sanders’ mansion. We’d show you glossy magazines with ads the company took out in them to prove how expensive they were. But it was all a fake.”
He also noted that in his short time as a “speakerman” (as the white van salesguys are known), he had one potential client tell him, “Last time I bought a pair of speakers from you guys I had to get my money back with a gun.”
That was enough for Toby. “I just didn’t need that in my life,” he said.
As for the pickup driver from the liquor store parking lot, well, he walked into the store a few minutes after the young men approached him, nearly thumping his chest with pride at the deal he’d made. “Gee, you look like you feel good,” said one of the employees behind the counter.
“You bet I do,” he said loudly enough for folks nearby to hear. “Man, I just got me some $3,000 speakers for $400. Is that a steal or what?”