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Fast money: Car device seller's scheme unravels

Dennis Lee claims for about a thousand bucks, he will sell you a device that maximizes your gas mileage in your car. Does it really work? Dateline gives Lee's product a test-drive.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Dennis Lee: We believe we will be able to get 100 mile-per-gallon in just about any car on the road – even SUVs. How important is that to America?

If true, very important. For years, people have been looking to innovations like hybrid, even electric cars as the way to lower dependence on foreign oil.  Scientists say the hydrogen powered car is a legitimate dream.

But this man says he may have the answer now. His name is Dennis Lee, and he says his device, called HAFC – the hydrogen assist fuel cell – is nothing short of revolutionary.

The HAFC alone can increase fuel economy by more than 50 percent and in many cases it has proven to even more than double your gas mileage. That's because, he says, your car will run not only on gas, but on water – which the device will convert to hydrogen fuel.

Dennis Lee:  There are plenty of people out there who can use some help at the gas pump.

The device itself retails for about a thousand bucks, not including installation. But Lee says you can make real money by buying a dealership and selling the devices to thousands of eager customers. The price? $300,000. But you'd better act now!

Dennis Lee: At the end of seven days, if you haven't made any decision, then it's like $300-350,000 at that time.

In fact, many of the people in this room have signed on and bought dealerships themselves.

Dennis Lee:  The cash is going to be incredible! Isn't it?

But Lee does admit his device does not always work, and says there is a money-back guarantee.

Dennis Lee: It is very, very, very, very, very, very rare that anyone does not get the 50 percent increase in mileage when the car is properly installed and tuned.

So how well does the device work?  What better way to find out than to buy a car, and have one installed and tested? For sales and installation in the Northeast, we were steered by a dealer to a man named Sam Burlum. With hidden cameras rolling, our producer went to visit Sam Burlum at his New Jersey garage. Sam told us about his and his colleague's credentials.

Sam Burlum: Mark and myself, we're installers, trainers, tuners – and we're also head of the HAFC research and development.

Sam told us he was under contract to Dennis Lee, and would soon be moving to a bigger garage.

While we were there, we met some other customers.

Man from Long Island: This is up and coming technology. I believe in it.

These people have paid Sam about $2,000 to have this device installed.

This man from New Hampshire wanted to start his own dealership.

On the garage wall, Sam’s documentation of increases in fuel economy in different model cars he has worked on.

Meade Jorgensen, Dateline Producer: Toyota Camry – 38 before, 68 now.

Outside, Sam the installer reminds us what makes the device so valuable.

Sam Burlum: You're helping the environment because the pollution goes way down, you don't have any. Now you're lessening your dependence on foreign oils.  So you don't have war.

And, he says, giving the "little guy" like himself more control over his own destiny is what it's all about.

Sam Burlum: You're taking the guy that was here, making it work on a day to day basis, and say(ing), "You're important.  Now you have a say," without picking up a gun. You know how monumental that is?

Producer:  That's pretty big.

In fact, it sounded hard to resist. Sam said the car that gets the best gas mileage with the device is the Honda Accord.

So, we bought one.  We also asked Mike Allen, senior automotive editor for "Popular Mechanics," to make sure the car was in good condition.  He said our Honda was running fine, and he also said this hydrogen type device wasn't the first one he's seen.

Mike Allen: I have tested dozens of these devices.

Chris Hansen: Have you ever found one that significantly increased gas mileage?

Mike Allen: Never. 

Still, we wanted to give Lee's device a fair chance.

But first, we needed to document what kind of mileage our Honda was actually getting.

So we hired a government approved company – Compliance and Research Services – to put our car through the same tests the Environmental Protection Agency performs before car companies put those mileage stickers on new cars.

Robert DePalma: Our plan today is to emissions-test this vehicle for highway fuel economy, and city emissions.

General Manager Robert DePalma and his team put our Honda through three identical road tests.

What kind of mileage was our car getting?

Robert DePalma: The average of the highway fuel economy tests gave us 34.49 miles-per-gallon. The city cycle gave us 24.02 miles-per-gallon.

But we also wanted know about the car's emissions.

Robert DePalma: Based on these results, this car would pass a federal emissions test.

Now it was time to take our car to Sam's garage and have the device installed.

Nine days later, we returned to pick up our car.

After what he says is a scientific road test, Sam had some incredible news about our Honda's gas mileage.

Producer:  96 miles-per-gallon?

Sam Burlum: 96 miles-per-gallon.

Producer: Wow!

Sam Burlum: And we got caught in a little bit of traffic too.

A Honda that an EPA approved lab says got between 24 and 34 miles to the gallon, was now supposedly getting almost a hundred. We paid Sam $1900 for the device and installation. There was a discount for cash. Then, to back up his amazing results, Sam took us for the same test drive he said he'd conducted earlier in the day.

At the end of this road test, Sam said our mileage wasn't quite what he originally thought.

Sam Burlum: 57.77 miles-per-gallon.

Sam told us the drop in gas mileage was probably due to the extra weight of four people in the car.

Still, even 57 miles to the gallon would be great.

Could it be true?

We had paid $1900 to have Dennis Lee's gas-saving device installed in our car.

Mechanic Sam Burlum told us we would get incredible gas mileage, 96 miles-per-gallon.

Could it be true?

We brought the car back to that government-approved lab and manager Robert DePalma for two more road tests.

Robert DePalma: We got no significant difference in anything.  Fuel economy, emissions – basically what it was last week, without the device installed.

Thirty-four miles per gallon before, 34 miles per gallon after, and no change in emissions.

So we didn't get the mileage Dennis Lee bragged about.

Dennis Lee in a promotional video, discussing HAFC: It is guaranteed to increase your fuel mileage by 50 percent or more.

It was no surprise to automotive expert Mike Allen, except when we showed him the bill.

Chris Hansen: It comes to $1,904 – we got the cash price discount.

Mike Allen: Ouch.

Chris Hansen: What did we get for our $1,904?

Mike Allen: Taken, you got taken.

Chris Hansen: So how would you describe this device?

Mike Allen: It's a scam.

Chris Hansen: Plain and simple?

Mike Allen:  Bogus, yeah.

Allen says Lee's device doesn't make nearly enough hydrogen to make a difference.

So why do so many go for it?

Mike Allen: There's one born every minute.  People want to believe that they can attach some gadget to their car, that they can pour some sort of pixie dust into their gas tank and get better fuel economy.

Chris Hansen: Yet he sells these things for thousands of dollars.

Mike Allen, laughing: Is this a great country or what?

What we found out about Dennis Lee is that over the years, he's gone from one end of the country to the other, touting much more than just his gas saving device.

Dennis Lee: The reason why we believe that nothing is impossible is because believe that to god nothing is impossible.

He's been part preacher, part salesman – a man who pitches things he says can change the  world.

Dennis Lee: A jack hammer that doesn't make noise.

Dennis Lee: Tires that never, ever go flat.

Dennis Lee: Cameras that can look through six feet of concrete wall.

Lee has even pitched an all-purpose motor that can run on virtually anything.

Promo narrator: Imagine running your engine on pickle juice, Coke, Pepsi, or anything liquid.

Dennis even inhaled what he says is pollution free exhaust.

Promo narrator: Now for something truly amazing. He will take deep breaths and will not cough.

Peter Sullivan: He had these inventions that would make a better world

In the mid-1990s, Peter Sullivan bought a Dennis Lee dealership to sell yet another of his inventions – a free-electricity machine.

Peter Sullivan: He was trying to bring together people who were motivated, who could invest with it, and then we would make money by doing good things.

But there was a hitch. While Lee used a demonstration model – there seemed to be a problem delivering the real thing. It was Sullivan's wife who smelled a rat.

Peter Sullivan, laughing: She had the intuition that this was a scam, to stay away from it. In my idealism, I didn't listen.

He says he never saw his money again and never actually received a working model of the free-electricity machine.

As for Lee, he's gone from one miraculous claim to another. He's even pitched a classic scam – one that's as old as the hills, the so-called perpetual motion machine.

Dennis Lee speaking at a convention: Could I show you a perpetual motion machine? Yes indeed, I do believe in perpetual motion machines.

Bob Park, University of Maryland Physics professor, author: He couldn't possibly believe these things. He was a swindler from the start and I think he enjoys it. Among the most fundamental laws is the law of conservation of energy.  A perpetual motion machine obviously violates that.  So, that just isn't going to happen.

How has Lee been able to pull off all his bold claims? Well, he hasn't always been able to.

I have the plea agreement.

According to California Department of Prison records office: Admitted to prison March 17, 1993, parolled April 29, 1994, discharged April 29, 1997. So, he served just over a year in prison.

In California in 1990, Lee pleaded guilty to eight felony counts stemming from the marketing of one of his business opportunities. He served just over a year in prison.

At one time or another, he's been prosecuted or sued in at least nine states for violating consumer protection laws: California, Washington State, Maine, New Mexico, Kentucky, Alaska, Vermont, Idaho, and Oregon.

Bob Park: He's broken a lot of laws, but he hasn't broken the laws of Physics yet.

Judging from our test results, Lee’s latest gas-saving device hadn't gotten our Honda any increase in mileage either.

So, we had some questions for Sam, the mechanic who installed the device, and for Dennis Lee himself.

Sam Burlum, the man who sold us the gas-saving device and installed it in our car said it would now get almost 100 miles to the gallon.

The problem is, according to the government-approved lab, it wasn't true.

Robert DePalma: No difference in anything.

So we went back to Sam to give him the bad news. I didn't tell him who I was at first, but soon, I identified myself.

Chris Hansen: That car that we brought in, that Honda…

Sam Burlum: Okay.

Chris Hansen: …that you installed the hydrogen assist fuel cell on. We had it tested independently.

Sam Burlum: Okay, well, did you do the same exact test we did, under same exact conditions that we did?

Chris Hansen: Well, let me just tell you, yes, we did it under professional conditions at an EPA-sanctioned facility.

Sam Burlum: Okay.

Chris Hansen: It got 34 miles per gallon before you put it on, and it got 34 miles per gallon afterwards.

Sam Burlum: Then the system needs to be returned.

Chris Hansen: The system needs to be retuned?

Sam Burlum: Ob-obviously, then, the system needs to be returned.

He insisted that once it was retuned, his so-called scientific road test would prove the device worked.  And he insisted the EPA-sanctioned test had to be wrong.

Chris Hansen: It seems like what you guys are selling is a product that doesn't work to people who are in very difficult economic times, who want to believe that they can double or triple their mileage.

Sam Burlum: We're not in business to scam people. That's not what we do.

Remember, Sam was just the installer. The person we really wanted to talk to was the inventor himself, Dennis Lee.

He lived nearby so we knocked on the door and were greeted by his wife.

Chris Hansen: Hi, how are you? I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC.

Allison Lee, shuts and locks door:  Ahhh.

Chris Hansen: We'd like to talk to Dennis Lee if we could.

Just as we were leaving, Mr. Lee appeared, and it turns out, he had a lot to say.

For instance, when we told him his invention didn't work in our car he said he never promised anyone it would always work.

Dennis Lee: Do you know what we tell everybody?

Chris Hansen: Go ahead.

Dennis Lee:  No, what do you think we tell everybody? We tell everybody it always works?

Chris Hansen: You sell it like it always works.

Dennis Lee: Is that what you think?

Chris Hansen: That's what you say.

Dennis Lee: You should actually check it out, because you know what we do?

Chris Hansen: You guarantee that the mileage…

Dennis Lee: I don't guarantee anything.

Maybe not, but listen to Lee himself on his promotional video.

Dennis Lee, on tape: It is guaranteed to increase your fuel economy by 50 percent or more.

And we reminded him that Sam, the man who installed the device, also told us it would increase our mileage by 50 percent.

Chris Hansen: We have your mechanic on camera…

Dennis Lee: Who's my mechanic?

Chris Hansen: Sam.

Dennis Lee: What mechanic is that?

Chris Hansen: Hmm, yes.

Dennis Lee: Okay, then it's some mechanic gets trained.

Chris Hansen: What are you saying?

Dennis Lee: That's not my mechanic. He doesn't work for me. 

Maybe not, but some who bought the device told us their dealers had steered them to Sam. 

Dennis Lee: Now, you're trying to be antagonistic and find something wrong, because that's what you do.

Chris Hansen: I know, but I'm telling you.

Dennis Lee: Because you're a lackey for oil companies and other people, and that's what you do.

Chris Hansen: Why, how could you say that?

Dennis Lee: You…

Chris Hansen: That's outrageous, Dennis.

Dennis Lee: Because it's what you do.

Chris Hansen: I'm a lackey for oil companies?

Dennis Lee: Well, right now, you've tried to…

Chris Hansen, chuckling: Based on what?

Dennis Lee: You've tried to tell me that you did something that shows…

Chris Hansen: Let me tell you…

Dennis Lee: That something doesn't work.

Chris Hansen: Yes, and it doesn't work. We bought…

Dennis Lee: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Chris Hansen: We bought it, Sam sold it.

Dennis Lee: Listen to what he just said. Now, you guys will be cutting this all out anyway, but listen to what he just said. See, it doesn't, it didn't work.

Lee is suggesting our experience is not typical, and he implied he doesn't want to rip anyone off. He told us his dealers are supposed to give the money back if a specific device doesn't work.

Dennis Lee: You should take it back…

Chris Hansen: …and get our money back.

Dennis Lee: …to wherever you bought it, only if you did what they agreed you should do.

Chris Hansen: We did it all.

Dennis Lee: Well then, I guess you need to go to them…

Chris Hansen: We, we paid the money…

Dennis Lee: ...and you need to talk to them.

Chris Hansen: …they installed it.

Dennis Lee: Because I will guarantee you some of these will not work. We have never said they always work, ever, to anybody, anywhere.

Dennis Lee: I don't know of anybody who says that – who doesn't give you back your money if a thing doesn't work. I don't know of anybody like that. I haven't heard of anybody like that. If I did, they would have a problem with me.

Chris Hansen: See, this is the same kind of doubletalk that you always use when you're backed in a corner.

Dennis Lee: Doubletalk, doubletalk, thank you.

Chris Hansen: That's exactly what it is.

Dennis Lee: Have a nice day.

Chris Hansen: I'm happy to talk to you.

Dennis Lee: In other words, oh yeah, you're ha — no, you're not happy to talk to me.

Chris Hansen: Give me one example…

Dennis Lee: You're happy to try to take everything I say and twist it.

Dennis Lee: That's what you're happy to do. You're not happy to talk to me. You're happy to twist what I say.

Dennis Lee: Because you have an agenda.

Dennis Lee:  You lucked out. No one else will. No comment to make, because you could care less about the truth.

The truth, Lee says, can be found in a recent court decision. The Federal Trade Commission recently charged Lee with false advertising and attempted to get an injunction to keep him from marketing his device. But a judge said, not so fast. 

Lee furnished the court with what he claims is scientific evidence that the device worked.  He also submitted the names of twenty-six people who he said were happy with the device.

Even though the court was skeptical of Lee's mileage claims, it decided not to grant the injunction at this time.  The FTC is still pursuing the case.

But what about those twenty-six people Dennis Lee cited in court documents as satisfied customers?

Dr. Michelle Hemingway:  I spent $1,000 for the kit itself, $2,000 for my mechanic to put it in.

Dr. Michelle Hemingway is one of them.

She said she's been back to have Sam re-tune her car three times so far.

Dr. Michelle Hemingway: Even though I've done all that, I've had no improvement.

Nir Kronenberg's name was also supplied to the FTC by Dennis Lee as someone who's had success with the device.

Nir Kronenberg: It doesn't work.  We can't get our money back. It's a rip-off basically.

All told, we were able to talk to 19 people on his list. 

Fifteen people told us the device didn't work as advertised.  Some were heading back to Sam for more re-tuning. Others were asking for their money back.

Two people actually said the device worked, but they also told us their cars weren't in working condition.

Another person who told us the device was working in his car declined our offer to have his car tested.

The list of satisfied customers named in the court documents included one other person we wanted to talk to, but we couldn't reach her. It turns out she lives with Sam Burlum, the mechanic. 

Electrical engineer Eric Krieg is a long-time critic of Dennis Lee.

Eric Krieg: He's very good at controlling people. He constantly recycles new people.

Lee sued him for, among other things, defamation. But the suit was recently dismissed with prejudice.

Krieg has posted a Web site offering anyone a reward if they can prove Lee's inventions actually work.

Eric Krieg: The urban legends about the person getting 100miles to the gallon are the ones that end up getting repeated. They're kind of a friend of a friend stories. People like that are just supposed to go away and ‘Oh, it didn't work,’ you're just supposed to shut up about that.

Dennis Lee is still doing battle with the FTC, and continues to maintain he makes no promises his gas saving device will always work.

For his part, he is a crusader, fighting for the little man.

Dennis Lee: You need to do something for yourself and not wait for the car manufacturers or the government to do it for you.

But to others, he is no crusader at all.

Chris Hansen: What do you suppose will end up happening to Dennis Lee?

Eric Krieg: I've been wrong to predict his downfall in the past, he'll probably weasel out of this and have some wonderful new promise.

And sure enough, on his Web site, Lee is already promoting a new catalytic converter for your car.

Dennis Lee: We got 180 miles per gallon under laboratory conditions.  We were all shocked!!!