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The great motor-home caper.

With a spirit of adventure and an unspoken plan, Bill and Blanche Lewis pulled out from the retirement mobile-home park. It was quickly swallowed by the coastal fog embracing the northern California community that September 1986 morning. Bound by neither schedule nor commitment, they headed up to northern Idaho to visit their daughter and her family. Taking this trip on the spur of the moment gave them a sense of freedom, but this was the beginning of a two-month ordeal that would rob them of their peace of mind, money, and much more.

Two days on the road-just enough time to mull over an idea they had entertained but investigated with little success in the communities surrounding their home.

With brown eyes twinkling, Bill announced to the family the first morning in Idaho, "We're going to Spokane to look at motor homes, Who wants to come along?"

During the 30-mile trip into Washington, the Lewises' daughter quizzed them, wondering if this venture was too late into retirement. Were they casting caution to the wind?

Conviction replaced doubt. The excitement was infectious. It would be the biggest shopping spree she'd been on with her parents. Three hours and four RV lots later, Bill and Blanche found a new motor home that met their needs perfectly: a 27-foot RV the smoothtalking salesman promised would meet California emission standards, for $1,500 less than the sticker price. Never ones to be forced into a deal, they quietly drove back to Idaho to think about the offer.

After a night short on sleep and long on discussion, Bill and Blanche returned to Spokane, convinced that weeks of searching had ended with the best decision. A $10,000 check exchanged hands, and a contractual agreement was drawn up which specified that the motor home would be equipped to meet and pass California emission standards. Ten days later, after a trip back to California to arrange finances, the Lewises returned to Spokane, paid the remaining $16,400, and took possession of their motor home.

The Lewises' visions of nomadic travel soon evaporated. After returning to their home state and paying more than $2,200 for temporary licensing and taxation, they found that the vehicle did not meet California emission standards.

The Spokane dealer insisted there was a solution. After four weeks of inquiries to the Air Resources Board of California, the higher echelon of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento, and the Detroit offices of the chassis manufacturer, and with assistance from their state senator's office, the Lewises found out the sordid truth. They were owners of a vehicle needing changes that should have been initiated at the factory at the time of production. The vehicle, subsequently, could not be licensed in their home state.

Angry that this investment had become a white elephant on wheels, they drove the 800 miles to Spokane and on October 27 insisted the dealer return their $26,400 because of breach of contract. Arrogantly, he replied, "I don't have your money; if I did, I wouldn't return it; and furthermore, I'm closing my doors for business as of November l."

Immediately, Bill and Blanche realized that their previous problems had suddenly become minor. The most glaring problem now was that they did not have the title to their vehicle. Initially, at purchase, they had been told the Manufacturer's Statement of Origin (MSO), equivalent to the title, would be sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento. They did not realize that most manufacturers and dealers use "flooring agents," who must be paid off before the MSO is released. Few dealers have sufficient capital to carry their own MSO's.

Weeks in September and October had passed with wild excuses: the MSO was misplaced in the files; lost in the mail; still with the manufacturer.

Time was, quite literally, of the essence. The Lewises sought legal help in Spokane. As the young attorney recorded the events, he added, "Please follow my instructions. While I sort through this information and confirm there is no conflict of interest if I take your case, you must go across town to the attorney general's office. A claims representative in the Consumer and Business Fair Practices Division will be expecting you. Her name is Barbara, and she wants to hear your story."

They wondered if this next stop would be just another blind alley. Barbara beckoned them from the foyer soon after the receptionist announced their arrival. She listened earnestly, interjecting questions occasionally as she recorded the details. Absent for a few minutes, she returned, announcing, "We've had no complaints against this business, but as soon as you file yours, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, we will begin an investigation. One more thing I'm going to urge you to do today. On your way back to Idaho, stop in the Washington State Patrol Office. There is a man there who might be able to help you. "

Their emotions were taut as they drove through the late-afternoon traffic. Could they hope, just one more time, that this man would be the one who could salvage their dreams and help them gain title to what was rightfully theirs?

Detective Don K. Campbell, a man of commanding stature, shook hands with Bill and invited him to sit down thing about the way the detective listened: he was an experienced problem solver; his wheels seemed to be turning. He'd heard details so similar, but the names and circumstances were different. Immediately, he placed a call to the RV dealer and made an appointment. Detective Campbell told the Lewises he would get back to them after his inspection.

That Thursday afternoon, Detective Campbell called, reassuring the Lewises that the dealer claimed he'd sent a $26,400 check that morning to the flooring agency in Ohio that held the MSO. The dealer promised that their title would reach Spokane by Saturday-and no later than the first of the week.

Monday morning, November 3, the dealer called the Lewises. The MSO had arrived. Only when they held that title in hand did they begin to find some peace.

Ironically, that very morning, an editorial in the Spokane paper outlined the heartache of consumers not as fortunate as Bill and Blanche. In a scheme that had begun three years earlier, in 1983, several victims had beet bilked of a total of more than $240,000 in what had been called the RV Kingdom case. One thief died of a terminal illness within two weeks after his 15-year sentencing. The other served only eight months of a 10-year sentence for four counts of first-degree theft, and he had just been paroled. And that parole had prompted the inflamed editorial.

The names, the faces, the dealer were different then. But there was one person, once again, with a principal role. Detective Campbell. He had been the primary investigator with the state patrol's Crime Investigations Division. But by the time the victims realized they had a problem, it was too late for him to help them.

It all began about mid-July 1983. The co-owners of RV Kingdom, masters of deceit, persuaded most buyers to make a sizable down payment and, in some cases, to sign over title of a vehicle or recreational vehicle on consignment as additional payment. Orders were placed for the individual new motor homes, and the purchasers awaited delivery. But as days and weeks crept on past the due date, customers called, asking about the delay. They were often told the same story: the vehicle got stuck in a snowbank in the East on its way out from the manufacturer.

By January 1984, customers realized they had become victims of more than a snow job. But by then, it was too late.

That month RV Kingdom listed more than $814,000 in debts in a petition for financial reorganization. Court-ordered bankruptcy, decreed in March, led to liquidation sales and public auction. Under federal bankruptcy laws, the victims were listed fourth in line for repayment from liquidated assets. At that priority level, each consumer creditor would receive about $900 reimbursement!

The co-owners slipped away to California to resume their lives as RV salesmen. But as they basked in the sun, the Washington State Patrol's crime-investigation team began a year-long probe into allegations of consumer fraud at the Spokane dealership.

Bank records, obtained by search warrants, revealed that the business operators converted cash down payments for recreational vehicles and proceeds from consignments of other RVs to their personal use. Customer deposits are required by Washington state law to be placed in trust accounts to prevent such comingling.

The majority of the victims were retired, successful in business, and wise consumers. Their one common denominator was trust. The personal losses of life savings or large amounts of borrowed money ranged from $9,000 to $40,000. One couple were forced to declare bankruptcy after forfeiting $27,500. Another pair from Pullman, Washington, were bound to an eight-year contract for a $436-a-month loan on an RV they'll never see. A Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, couple traded in a $23,745 motor home and gave the dealership an additional $16,000 cash down payment. Neither was recovered. A Spokane woman paid $15,537 in cash for a trailer she never received.

There were other victims. They suffered financially; they suffered emotionally with the shattering of lifelong dreams. Their road to recovery will be painful. Their scars might remain indefinitely. And yet the criminal was given a shortened sentence because of plea bargaining and a parole due to "good behavior. " His parole of ten years is hardly long enough to repay the $246,683 in court-ordered restitution. It's conceivable he could receive a release from supervision in just one year. As the Spokane paper editorialized, "This one, in the minds of crime victims, gives the criminal-justice system a well-deserved black eye."

In 1986, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report detailing a government study of forgery, counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement in eight states having a third of the country's population. More than 85 percent of those arrested for white-collar crimes were prosecuted. Of those, 74 percent were actually convicted . Only 18 percent were incarcerated for more than one year, and the remainder were in prison less than a year or were given probation or other non-prison penalties.

The victims in the RV Kingdom case believe motor-home purchasers should be protected by stiffer state laws, regulations, bonding requirements, and judgments. In their case, the former salesmen easily acquired a $60 Washington state auto dealer's license, purchased a $30,000 surety bond, and through outside financing, filled their rented lot. Bonding, a form of business insurance, should be for a greater amount, insist the victims, and the amount should be based on a percentage of the dealership's inventory. The common cost for the $30,000 bond-hardly enough to compensate the victims-at $10 per $1,000 of coverage, is as little as $300 per year. The $30,000 paid in bond in this case went to a Sandpoint, Idaho, customer, the first person to file a claim for it.

Representatives from the recreational-vehicle industry, however, maintain that tougher laws interfere with private enterprise. They believe the consumer must become more knowledgeable. They point to the legal principle of caveat emptor-"let the buyer beware."

"An alert, informed consumer is the best protection against fraud," states the title page of consumer Alert, a booklet published by the Washington State office of the Attorney General.

Among tips for the wise buyer are the following:

1. Take time and don't be pressured into buying anything.

2. Don't believe an unbelievable deal. Investigate such offers thoroughly.

3. Make sure all promises are in writing and that contracts state when and how deposits may be refunded.

4. Read and understandeverything before signing. There should be no blank spaces on a contract.

5. Use credit buying wisely. Know what it's costing and the consequences of falling behind in payments. Buy only what you can afford.

6. Consult an attorney for major or complex transactions, especially before signing papers or paying money.

7. Find out your rights, as a consumer, under state and federal laws.

In addition, the consumer should take a more aggressive role in the marketplace. Be prepared to check into the history of the business you will be dealing with, just as it would you, if you were buying on credit.

Your checklist should include calls to the following: the Better Business Bureau, to uncover existing complaints; the consumer division of your state attorney general's office (if a complaint has been made, it will be on file); the department of licensing, which oversees recreational-vehicle businesses; and any consumer-rights advocate affiliated with your local newspaper.

Confirm that the dealer is bonded. Find out if deposits and consignment money are held in a trust account until goods and title are in the consumer's possession. When trading in a used motor home or consigning one with a dealer, never leave the signed title with the dealer. It would be more prudent for a third party or the owner's attorney to hold the title until the owner's interests are satisfied.

Finally, ask the prospective dealer to give you names of his recent clientele. From them you can find out about contract fulfillment, service after the sales, and the general reputation of the dealer.

If you have doubts about the deal or the dealer, know whom to go to for help. Good timing, as in the case of Bill and Blanche Lewis, is of the essence.

But perhaps the best advice came from Detective Campbell, who has witnessed the tremendous financial and emotional devastation of fraud vi"If I were ever fortunate enough to afford a motor home, I would put $100 down and wouldn't pay the rest until saw the vehicle and the MSO [title] with my own eyes." There was such a twinkle in those eyes. It was apparent that no one would ever get the best of him.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:buying recreational vehicles
Author:Hoss, Julie; Hamilton, Marcus
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
Previous Article:Floor decor.
Next Article:Letting the good times roll.

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