My son the college student called the other afternoon, with something obviously very important on his mind. "Can you call me right back?" he said, which, translated, meant putting the call on my dime. I hung up, and with visions of disastrous news about to come forth from the grading department, proceeded to dial his number.
"Listen to this," he said.
It sounded ominous. "I'm listening," I said.
"Jeep," he said. "Forty-four dollars."
"Jeep," he repeated. "Forty-four dollars."
"I thought you said 'Jeep.' "
"I did," he said.
"Well, thank goodness my hearing isn't going," I said, "just your mind."
"It's from an advertisement in the college paper," he said, "for government surplus jeeps. I called the number and this woman said that for $22 I could get a two-volume listing of all sorts of government surplus property. And I can get an update every year for as long as I live. Jeeps, land for $7.50 an acre, all sorts of things."
"What kind of Jeep do you think you could get for $44?" I said.
"She said they were in good condition and if there was anything wrong with them they would lower the price. This is all perfectly good equipment that they have to get rid of in order to make room for the new stuff they've ordered."
I would like to be able to say that I had dispatched my son into the world with enough good sense to realize that there was something fishy about the governmnent unloading Jeeps for $44, but given recent stories on Pentagon largess it occurred to me that this might not be so unbelievable after all. For a good two seconds I considered staking him to a whole bunch of $44 Jeeps which we could then unload in Northern Virginia for a handsome profit. When you're paying college tuition bills you get very imaginative about income sources. But reason prevailed.
"Have you ever heard of Pentagon waste? That's exactly what we're talking about here."
He had either stumbled across a terrific news story or a terrific scam. I secured a promise that he would not plunk down his $22 until I had checked this out, which I did the following day with Charles Brenner. Brenner is director of the sales division in the office of property management for the General Services Administration, which sells the surplus property for all the civil agencies of the federal government. It turns out that Brenner was no stranger to these ads. It also turns out that he was quite sure that no government agency was letting go of Jeeps for $44.
"I think your son is going to be in for a large disappointment," he said. "You get one for $44 and it'll be all crated up." I could see the lettering on the box: "some assembly required."
Instead of the buy of a lifetime, my son had stumbled across something that Brenner says is a growing problem. "There are a lot of private concerns that advertise and sell information on how the government disposes of its property," said Brenner. "Most of these are misleading. They clearly imply that the firm placing the advertisement is acting for the government and of course they obviously are not. I have some ads that have caused us trouble and we have referred most of them to our inspector general's office." If mail fraud seems to be involved, he said, GSA informs the postal authorities.
"We're unhappy with these firms," says Brenner. "They'll run the ads in various publications and ask for a contribution of $10, $15, or $20 a shot and then say if they don't get any sales announcement in three months they should contact GSA. It's a nice way to make $20 free.
"Most of them are fly by night. The postal service finds they've moved yesterday. Even in those instances where they have gotten people to back down, you find they're back in business in two or three weeks.
"Here's one that was in Car and Driver magazine. The caption reads, 'Need a new car now? Beat all '83 car prices. Own or drive any late model car, truck or boat for $200.' In this economy people are going to be intrigued by ads such as these. But unfortunately you really don't get anything for nothing. There aren't any bargains in the marketplace and certainly not from the government."
Which any taxpayer knows to be true.
Consumers can get information about surplus property free by contacting the regional offices of GSA and watching newspaper ads placed by GSA. "We sell almost anything you can imagine from cars to trains to planes to launching pads to livestock," and land, said Brenner.
But no $44 Jeeps.