Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Lesson in Record Keeping (and showing some teeth)

I’m usually pretty good about keeping track of my important papers. I can tell you where my mortgage papers are; they’re in a heap in the closet. My bank statements are online because if they send me paper ones they end up in my pile of important things “to sort” (even though I know it’ll never get done). And so on and so forth. But I at least know which pile everything is in.

So, naturally, I kept all of my documentation from buying my first new car last November, and the smart people at the dealership folded everything up and put it into an envelope for safe keeping. THAT got filed, haha.

Things got a little interesting when, a month later, I found out that the car I had traded in had been impounded. I called the police department that had sent me a notice and they told me to not worry, as the title transfer probably hadn’t taken effect yet. I went on this advice, and lo and behold, the car had some fun in another city after its release from impound. According to the notice the first tow yard actually dumped it. Yup, towed again. Funny thing is that the car seemed to lose more and more “parts” each time it was towed. (To be perfectly honest I wonder if it now has been dismantled and carried off in a hundred different directions, much like how ants dismantle an insect that had the unfortunate pleasure of dying within their reach.)

Given the response from the first police department I opted wait for the ball to drop. The car was hopscotching around the county and the DMV had been entirely unresponsive in reconciling the matter. As usual.

Without going into the boring details, not long after this occurred I got a letter from Your Friendly Neighborhood Bill Collector. Yes, the tow yard made no attempt to reconcile the issue directly with me, they just sent the towing and storage bill to collections (jerks). There was no way I was going to pay the bill - as doing so would admit responsibility for something I had legally washed my hands of. And, I have better uses for $1400 than throwing it down the toilet.

So, naturally, I knew where my documents were! Off they went via fax to Your Friendly Neighborhood Bill Collector. However, while they were sufficient to prove to the collection gnomes that I had sold the car, they were nailing me on a minor misstep that I had done regarding the title transfer. I had fixed that misstep (not filing a NRL form) but did it outside of the required window of time. But it WAS done as soon as I found out it was required, and long before the tow yard had the car. Add in some DMV technicalities that prevented the car from being transferred from my name, and yeah, it was just a sucky situation.

Enter Teeth Baring Michelle.

Through the help of a savvy online friend, I was pointed at the wonder that is the Federal Debt Collection Practices Act. Turns out that while a collector can demand the moon and sky from me, I could demand the sun and the stars from the collector. I made their life suck and requested every piece of documentation the collector was legally obligated to provide me. Some of it I knew would be impossible for them to get. And, I demanded that they do it in an uncomfortable time frame. I was creating a paper trail to convince a judge to side with me, because I was prepared to take this to court.

Side note - when dealing with something like this send absolutely everything USPS certified return receipt. It is well worth the $5 it’ll cost you to mail each letter.

A week before their time to provide documentation to me was up, I got a letter from their lawyer saying to pay up or they would take me to court. On my birthday, no less. Go ahead, I said, because I knew that I had followed all the rules and could prove my innocence.

Their “time up” soon arrived and I got to write one of the most enjoyable letters of my life. They hadn’t responded to my demands and, under the law, couldn’t do a darn thing to me until they had. I love that clause. In that letter I got to demand that they drop the case and provide me written proof that they did. I also got to tell them they failed to act twice, and threatened to sue them twice, all in one letter. It was also a scary letter to send, as I didn’t know if I’d be poking the bear or if they HAD provided that information and by some fluke it didn’t make it me. Scary stuff indeed.

I even sent a similar letter to their lawyer, just to rub it in.

So, when I saw an envelope from them in my mailbox a week later it was almost like when you’re waiting on college acceptance letters. A fat envelope means one thing and a thin means another. This was a thin envelope. I had shown enough teeth that they had given up. In their words, had “proven that I didn’t own the car at the time of the tow.” Funny thing is, they based that decision on the exact same documentation that they had previously told me wouldn’t absolve me of responsibility. I think they just got tired of me, or figured out that I had been quietly building a case against them. Either way, it was over. They are now pursuing the line of ownership until they reach the guy that got it towed. Given that this fellow was driving with no license, no insurance, and without the car registered in his name I feel that this is rightfully fair.

In the end it was a stressful and expensive adventure (I had to get some expensive DMV documentation in place in case of a suit), but I learned that the little man CAN win. It just takes standing up for yourself and taking the time to get educated on what laws are in place to protect you. It’s also kind of fun to get mean.

You can bet every scrap of paper relating to this is getting saved, because I’m pretty sure the car is still in my name, and this might not be the end of this mess.

Also, because I didn’t know this before, EVERY time you buy or sell a car two copies of a nifty little form called a Notice of Title Transfer and Release (NRL) are required; one from the buyer and one from the seller. They take ten seconds to complete online or at AAA, but if properly submitted will save your butt should you ever run into my situation. Submit your appropriate buyer or seller form within 5 days of the date of sale to the DMV and your half is covered. This is specific to California, but I’m sure every state has a similar process.

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