Nasty surprise awaits vacationer's return to car dealership

Consuming Interests

October 23, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Theresa Wilson's automobile angst began in July with an oil leak in her silver 2001 Hyundai Elantra.

A subsequent visit to a car dealership fixes the leak, but then sticks the 42-year-old U.S. Army auditor from Columbia with a damaged car, plundered property, a $75 red light ticket, 694 more miles on her odometer and a gigantic migraine.

But we digress. Let's go back to the beginning, when Wilson discovers the oil leak, calls Antwerpen Hyundai in Catonsville, and speaks to a service representative, who then tells Wilson to drop the car off the following day, July 7, for service. Wilson agrees, tells the rep that she'll be on vacation the next week and asks if it's possible to leave the car at the dealership until she gets back on July 15. She'll pay for storage, if necessary.

"She said, 'No problem,'" Wilson recalls.

Fast-forward a few days. Wilson finds out on Monday that the leak was caused by a small, loose bolt. The entire job will cost $50, including an oil change.

Relieved, Wilson asks if she should send her son over to pick up the car, but the Antwerpen rep "told me no, don't worry about it. So I didn't, until I missed a call from the dealership the next day. I thought, 'Oh no. There must be a problem with the car."

There was no problem, Wilson says the same service rep told her. The rep just wanted to know if Wilson was going to be gone for a week at the beach and if so, would she bring back some saltwater taffy? "I know, it sounds insane, but that's what she called about. I told her OK," Wilson says.

On July 15, when she returns from the beach, Wilson discovers scrapes and a big dent in the front bumper of her car. She opens the door to find the inside reeking of alcohol and cigarettes. Fifteen CDs are gone, two blankets missing, a vanity mirror smashed, a speaker on the driver's side door kicked in and heating ducts pulled out from under the passenger seat. The odometer shows 694 more miles on it and the back bumper sports a lovely South of the Border bumper sticker.

Wilson was also about to get a $75 ticket in the mail from the City of Baltimore for her car's run-in with a red light camera on Hilton Street a little after 6 a.m. that same day, before she picked up her car.

Outraged, Wilson complains but gets nowhere when a sales manager tells her the dealership is not responsible. She calls Baltimore County Police, but decides not to file a report when the dealership tells her they'll work with her to settle the issue.

After much back and forth for weeks, Wilson says Antwerpen fixed the damage and told her they'd reimburse her for the stolen items and detailing to clean the inside, which cost her $414.

"But then they told me they weren't going to pay me back for the rest because [the service representative] was arrested," Wilson says. "They said I had to take it up with her. They said they're not responsible. I was hoping to avoid going to court, but I don't see any other choice now."

Consumer protection experts say such cases are rare, but car owners can use it to glean some cautionary lessons.

Let's discuss Wilson's actions. In the Things She Did Wrong Column: she left her car at the dealership for a week, told a stranger she'd be away for a week, didn't have the car picked up after that bizarro taffy call (Wilson still wants to kick herself for that). In the Things She Did Right column: Wilson called the police.

Car owners should protect themselves by using a business recommended by friends or family, checking for complaints filed against the company with the Better Business Bureau or the Consumer Protection Division, documenting the condition of the car at drop-off, writing down the odometer reading, and removing all valuable items. And as a rule, do not leave a car at the service station longer than necessary.

Car owners should also check to make sure that any paperwork that is signed (or any notices that are posted) does not absolve the dealership of all liability.

Even if such disclaimers are posted, however, such responsibility-free waivers aren't 100 percent binding, says Rebecca Bowman, assistant attorney general for the state Consumer Protection Division, who recommends contacting an attorney in a dispute like this. In this particular case, Wilson should also contact her auto insurance company, which could cover the theft and possibly take up the fight with the dealership.

And while she did the right thing by calling the police, she should have taken it one step further by filing a police report, says Baltimore County Police spokesman Vicki Warehime. A report would help bolster her case in court.

Once such measures are taken, there's nothing left to do but hope for the best. "To a certain degree, you have to have faith in the person you entrust with your goods," Bowman says. "But there is no guarantee that something bad won't happen."

But no worries, this ends well.

One day after we called Antwerpen for comment, dealership attorney Hillel Traub chalks up the whole dispute to a "misunderstanding."

"I already settled the case with Mrs. Wilson a few weeks ago," Traub says, still insisting that Antwerpen was not responsible and declining to confirm that the person arrested in the case was an employee. "There seems to be a delay in her getting the check. I've apologized for the delay. She's supposed to get it soon ... We did everything we could have and should have done in [this] case."

Give credit to Antwerpen for resolving the problem, albeit three months later.

As for Wilson, she's still sore, but not necessarily about the car.

"When I was driving away with my damaged car that day, I saw [the rep] chomping on my saltwater taffy," Wilson says, her sense of humor intact.

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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