In the Oak Cliff neighborhood where Juan Ontiveros operates his furniture shop, signs on the barred store windows advertise "recámaras" and "comedores." For most customers at the shop on West Davis Street, no English translations of the Spanish words for bedroom suites and dining-room sets are needed. In recent months, however, Ontiveros, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, who has operated his family-run business for six years in Dallas but speaks little English, has paid a high price for conducting transactions solely in Spanish.
Marsha Foulks, a lawyer with a storefront legal-aid office opened by the downtown firm of Bickel & Brewer, says that Ontiveros has suffered because a fast-talking, Spanish-speaking salesman last year persuaded him to sign an all-English contract to lease a $2,397 credit-card processing machine. Despite promises from the salesman, Foulks says, the storeowner has never been trained to use the machine. So the device sits unused on a desk in his store while Ontiveros pays more than $100 a month in leasing and servicing fees, and he misses daily opportunities to sell furniture because he cannot complete credit-card transactions.
Although Bickel & Brewer so far is representing only Ontiveros in his contract dispute with the salesman's company, Foulks and others in the Hispanic business community say similar complaints are commonplace among Oak Cliff Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs.
"This scheme has gone on for a long time," says Amanda Moreno, owner of Amanda's Salon and a member of the board of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "They've come in dozens. They can't explain it inSpanish. All they want you to do is sign something like a five-year contract." Moreno says the salesman typically walk the streets lined with Hispanic-operated storefronts in Oak Cliff offering deals and, they keep returning and pestering the proprietors to buy.
Ontiveros says his troubles began about a year ago, when Ruben Ramos, an independently contracted salesman for the North Dallas-based Credit Merchant Services Inc. (CMS), walked into his store and convinced him to lease the machine.
"I called him on the beeper, the cell phone, and at home," says Ontiveros, speaking through a translator, of his efforts to contact the salesman after he signed the agreement. "Finally, he said that he didn't work for the company that produced the machine. He was an independent contractor, so he had nothing to do with it anymore."
The Dallas Observer was unable to reach Ramos despite leaving several messages with the manager of independent salesmen at CMS.
Jon Frankel, president of Credit Merchant Services, contends that Ontiveros' claim and any others like it are unbelievable.
"It's hard for me to believe," Frankel says about the allegations. "I don't want to get into legal jargon. People are going to cry wolf, but it's really hard to fall through the cracks with the amount of due diligence that is done."
Frankel concedes that his company does subcontract with independent salesmen. But, he says, before any of those representatives' contracts with customers are completed, the lease-financing company conducts a confirmation call. The purpose, Frankel says, is to ensure that the credit-card processing machine recipient is satisfied before he is obligated to pay.
After the Observer telephoned him about this story, Frankel insisted that he intended to investigate precisely what had occurred in Ontiveros' case and pledged that the storeowner would have a functioning credit-card processing machine in a matter of days. At press time, however, the lawyers at the Bickel & Brewer storefront, whom Ontiveros contacted after he learned about their low-cost legal services at a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce workshop, said no one from CMS had contacted them.
In a letter that an attorney for Frankel's company sent to Ontiveros' lawyers last month, the company seemed determined to steer clear of the furniture-store owner now that he had signed the contract. In the letter, the company lawyer insisted that CMS was not responsible for Ontiveros' equipment since it had not executed the lease (that had been done by the financing company) or marketed the equipment (that had been done by the independently contracted salesman). CMS had simply leased the equipment through those two other concerns, the company lawyer's letter implied.
"These independent contractors are under contact with CMS solely for the purpose of marketing CMS' services. They are not employees of CMS, nor are they agents of CMS. CMS exercises no control over the marketing techniques of such independent contractors," the lawyer wrote.
A short, stocky, light-eyed, mustached man, Ontiveros started his business six years ago from his home with his wife, who also doesn't speak English. They began by selling mattresses on order from catalogs and have expanded their store to a gym-sized space chock-full of oak dining sets, chrome-and-glass coffee tables, metal bunk beds, and clothing.
Ontiveros says he knew he was going to have problems understanding exactly how to use the credit-card processing machine from the moment Ramos set foot in his shop. The salesman's Spanish was halting. It took Ramos several months and several visits to persuade Ontiveros to seriously consider a lease. Ultimately, Ontiveros says, he was convinced to take the machine because Ramos told him he could test the machine before signing a contract.
Ontiveros initially planned to have his son Juan Carlos, an 18-year-old straight-A student at a private Catholic school, help him learn how to operate the machine. The young man, who speaks Spanish and English fluently, often serves as an interpreter and assistant for his parents. When suppliers try to fast-talk in English, the younger Ontiveros usually handles the matter quickly. "I often tell people we are just not interested," the son says.
But the credit-card processing machine salesman was never available to show Juan Carlos how to operate the machine. "The guy could never come here when Juan was here," the father recalls. Finally, Ontiveros signed the lease contract in English, obligating him to pay on a monthly basis for the machine plus service fees.
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Ontiveros has refused to make the payments since the machine is still not operating and therefore of no value to him. The financing company has continued to try to debit his bank account. When a collection agency sent Ontiveros a letter on behalf of the leasing company, the message was written in Spanish.
As a board member on the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Moreno wants to create a climate to prevent similar problems. She is trying to get the city of Dallas to produce Spanish versions of the applications and forms necessary for small business operators. Next, she says, she wants to prod all those trying to do business with Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs in Dallas to offer contracts and literature in Spanish.
"We haven't figured out how we're going to do that yet," says Moreno, "but we're going to try."
In the meantime, Ontiveros would warn fellow Spanish-speaking business operators to watch out with all-English contracts. "If they don't understand the sales people," says his son Juan Carlos, "we usually just tell them to go away."