January 13, 2009

My Latest Ethical Dilemma

Late in 2008, I bought a new car and, because I’m such a wonderful father, I traded my old car with my youngest daughter. This meant she got to replace her 2001 Hyundai (worth only a few thousand dollars) with my old 2004 Mercedes, which she agreed was an excellent deal. Not wanting to list and sell her old car myself, I found a broker through my network of friends. He agreed to sell the car for a modest fee. We listed the car and within a couple of months the car was sold. To date, I have yet to receive any money and we soon came to realize that we, along with several other people in Portland, had been taken by a broker who had skipped town.

Right now, I own – e.g. have the title in my possession - the Hyundai. A very nice person, to whom I have only spoken briefly on the phone, paid cash to the broker for this car and now has possession of it, but no title. The police tell me that if I so desire, I can claim the car a stolen and they will arrest this person and hopefully get my car back. My insurance company tells me that they consider the car stolen as well. But they can’t process any claim I might have until the police are involved.

About a month ago, the court appointed attorneys for the broker told us that there was a surety bond in place and that when all the claims were processed we would see some proceeds from the bond. Yesterday I got a registered letter saying that the claims amounted to just over $620,000 and there was a surety bond in place in the amount of $40,000. So my math says I will get about $6.00 for every $1,000 my car was worth. Of course there are likely to be some attorney fees involved so my $30.00 windfall may go down.

Here is my dilemma. The person who bought my car did so in good faith. He paid cash for the vehicle (and, in my opinion, paid a premium price). If I file a claim for this money, I will be forced to call him a thief and send the police or a private towing company to reclaim my car. I would then get the car back to clean up and re-sell and he gets nothing. I haven’t checked to see if there is any tax benefit from me taking this as a loss, but if I do, how do I deal with the title of this car – for which, by the way, I am still paying the insurance on?

Candidly, I won’t miss a meal if I just write this off, but there doesn’t seem to be any roadmap as to how to make this a win-win.

What would you do in my place?
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9 Responses to "My Latest Ethical Dilemma"

Emmie {orange + barrel} said... January 13, 2009 at 9:47 AM

Easy, you will get about $10 in a couple of years, or you take the write off and transfer the title to the guy who acted in good faith. The stress of a law suit is not worth it.

Bill Goldman said... January 13, 2009 at 11:19 AM

Bill Goldman said...
David, this is quite the quandary. My guess to resolve this is to determine what the car is actually worth. Set yourself a limit, before doing an analysis, and if the car is under that limit, and assuming the purchaser acted in good faith, than let it go. If, however, the value of the car is more than the limit you artificially set than keep the car, fix it up, and resell it. There will be no happy parties to this affair, as one of you will take the loss.... however, do what your heart tells you is the right thing. One question to ask is if you keep the car and resell it is if you will still be a party to the court case? I Hope all is well....we think of you often!

Mike West said... January 13, 2009 at 2:48 PM

David, I agree this is not an easy call, but I would send the title to the buyer who acted in good faith and paid for the car. Okay, you will be out a few thousand dollars, but five? A 2001 Hyundai is probably worth $3500, unless I miss my guess. So you'll be out a few grand. You were swindled!

Meanwhile, consider if you take the car back. One, you will have put the hurt on the other guy, not you, and you'll never forget you did that, even if you sell it in a few weeks to someone else. And you will have cheated yourself of the schadenfreude you would have experienced when the crooked broker goes to the lockup for his crime(s).

I say, take the hit and get past it.

-- Michael West

Anonymous said... January 14, 2009 at 12:05 AM

David, I would give up! Be a NICE guy and pass the title over to the genuine buyer. You have both been 'had' - there is no winner here. But by being a nice guy to the genuine buyer, you will feel better great story though. Barry

Mike West said... January 14, 2009 at 1:17 PM

David, my wife Linda thinks you should split the difference with the buyer. Of course, both of you would lose something that way, but nobody would solely be the loser. She has a point, but I still prefer my earlier response.

-- Michael West

Andrew Mitton said... January 14, 2009 at 5:32 PM

I suppose that these are the costs and risks of trust. I would much rather live my life trusting people than spending the time and effort minimizing these costs and risks. It makes sense at the catastrophic level, but not at this level. I think you did right by trusting in the first place and can continue to do right by writing this one off. I'm certain that the dividends you've received by trusting people far outweigh this incident.

David Childers said... January 15, 2009 at 7:32 PM

I think that all of you have confirmed what I thought was the right thing to do from the begining. This person, to the best of my knowledge bought the car in good faith. I just need to determine how to make the transfer without further downstream risk.

Anonymous said... January 22, 2009 at 11:56 AM

So am I correct in understanding that the location of the "broker" who has skipped town is known to authorities? And that since this is a "civil" matter, as opposed to a "criminal" matter, no jail time or community service time is in store for this criminal? If I were wealthy enough to own a mercedes, I think I might hire a criminal prosecutor and/or a private investigator in an effort to see about puting this man behind bars. If I weren't that wealthy, I might see if there are any consumer protection organizations around who might be willing to aid in that kind of an effort.

My priority in this situation would not be to minimize my losses or make sure the losses involved were fairly distributed across the victims. My priority would be to protect future victims by punishing the guilty party in a way that would be effective in preventing them, or anyone who becomes aware of what happened to them, from victimizing anyone else.

Steven said... February 10, 2009 at 12:15 PM

David - another unfortunate case of bureaucracy at it's (less than) finest. I'd suggest that you find a way to do the following:
1) Recover your car, and do so without legally hurting the innocent buyer.
2) Press charges against the unethical broker so that he's punished to the full extent of the law in order to protect future victims from his deceit.
3) Gift the car back to the innocent buyer.

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David Childers
of EthicsPoint

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