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Taken for a Ride and Left Stranded

He sits at a small table in the Wild Oats Community Market, amid the muffins and the hazelnut coffee, waiting for his ride as Christmas carols float from speakers above.

"I'm your natural-living super friend," Aaron Travis says with a smile. "I assumed everybody was going to do right. See how lame I am. See how I got suckered on the car deal."

He laughs, the initial shock replaced now by bemused resignation, realizing that in this Christmas season he has experienced the true spirit of South Florida. So with holiday good cheer he proclaims, "This is wacky, isn't it!"

It is according to those who make their living investigating car-buyer complaints. "That's a new one," marveled Jean Barnes, an analyst in the Broward County Consumer Affairs Division. "Something doesn't sound right."

The Aaron Travis story begins with an attempt to buy his first car in South Florida. Travis, age 31, moved to Fort Lauderdale three years ago after graduating with a degree in English literature from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. For the last thirteen months, he has sold vitamins and herbs at Wild Oats, on East Sunrise Boulevard and NE 25th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.

On the evening of November 6, Travis wandered into Armstrong Ford of Pompano Beach. "I just wanted to get some numbers," he woefully recalls.

A test drive in a Ford Ranger truck led to prolonged discussion of payment possibilities, which led to Travis authorizing a credit check. He figured that would kill any potential deal, because he is behind on repaying more than $10,000 in student loans. "My credit isn't great," he volunteers. "I said I had student loans. I discussed that twice."

Travis waited for the credit check, then watched his salesmen carry papers into the finance manager's office. "I was thinking to myself, they're going to reject me. Then they came in and put it on me: 'What will it take to make a deal tonight?' I was surprised they were pushing me into this deal."

The company offered an apparent bargain on a 1997 Ford Ranger that Travis decided he couldn't refuse: payments of $262 a month at 6.9 percent interest and a $1000 trade-in allowance for his 1985 Thunderbird. The dealership gave him that trade-in without seeing the Thunderbird, which Travis had left at home and which, he acknowledges, had mechanical problems. "I was like, wow, I can't believe this; that was a great deal for me," he recalls. "The salesmen were all smiley and happy, shaking my hand; we made a deal."

Travis was ushered into the office of the finance manger, who asked about the student loans. "I said, 'I'm working on that....' He said, 'You're really lucky to have this truck.'" Travis then signed an installment contract for a $15,774 loan from Ford Motor Retail Credit Co. A salesman rode with Travis' girlfriend to pick up the Thunderbird trade-in; Travis drove out of Armstrong that very night in a white Ford Ranger.

"I was on the road, and it was my truck," he enthuses. "It was final. I was driving around happy."

That lasted ten days.
Then salesman Don Gottschalk called and said Travis now needed a cosigner on the loan. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' I thought the deal was done. I wouldn't have made a deal if I needed a cosigner. I wouldn't have traded my car in."

The next day an Armstrong "higher-up" -- Travis says he can't remember the name -- called to demand he find a cosigner or bring back the Ranger. "I said fine, I have no problem with that as long as I get my car back."

Then things deteriorated. According to Travis the Armstrong manager said they were going to charge a fee for the mileage he put on the truck -- and they were keeping his Thunderbird. Travis exploded. "I said, 'That's unreasonable, I can't believe you can get away with this. That's illegal I'm sure.'" According to Travis the manager replied, "That's what lawyers are for."

Whether Armstrong's actions are legal depends on what Travis signed that night in the dealership, but experts at Broward County Consumer Protection are skeptical. "I've never seen anything where they forfeit their trade-in," Barnes says. "That just doesn't sound right."

It is "very common" for dealers to demand more loan money or return of the vehicle days after buyers think the deal is done, Barnes says. That's called "spot delivery of a vehicle" and involves buyers signing a "bailment agreement," which gives the dealer the right to take back the car if, for example, a loan doesn't receive final approval.

Dealers often offer a low interest-rate to close a deal, Barnes explains, then have those terms rejected by the lending institution. "The dealer calls the buyer and says, 'We can get you financing,' and apparently they can, but at a much higher rate than what he was initially quoted." Dealers tell the buyer he must accept the higher rate or bring back the new car, Barnes continues, and frequently charge a fee for mileage put on the car while the buyer had it.

In Travis' case the question is whether he signed a bailment agreement that permitted Armstrong to keep the Thunderbird, Barnes says. "If he didn't sign any such document, then Armstrong Ford would have a problem: It's called either return the money you gave him for the trade allowance or return the vehicle."

Because Travis doesn't remember signing a bailment agreement, New Times contacted Armstrong Ford, beginning with Gottschalk, the salesman who made the deal. He was asked the legal basis for not returning the Thunderbird.

"I drove that vehicle; it had no brakes," Gottschalk said. "The total value of that car was under $100. I don't know what the disposition was on the car, but I'd rather have someone in management return this call."

After waiting a day for the management response, New Times again called Armstrong Ford and was transferred to a sales manager named Emilio, who declined to give his last name.

"The dealership doesn't have anything to say to you... nothing whatsoever," Emilio said, then hung up.

When Armstrong said he wasn't getting his Thunderbird, Travis kept the Ranger and consulted lawyer James L. Soule. "I contacted Ford Credit. They had no knowledge of the deal whatsoever," Soule says. "I made several phone calls to the dealership itself, all of which have gone unanswered.... If they're going to void the deal, then they have to make him whole, as he was previously." That's lawyer talk for 'Give Travis his Thunderbird or the $1000 trade-in allowance.'

Armstrong Ford apparently had a different solution in mind.
On the night of December 11, as he sat on the balcony of his third-floor apartment in Pompano Beach, two guys in a tow truck pulled up in front of the Ranger parked below.

"My girlfriend looks out the window, and she screams, 'They're downstairs!' So I run downstairs, jump in between the truck and them, and I'm like, you guys aren't taking my truck -- you've got to get through me!" Travis also yelled for his girlfriend to call the police, then opened dialogue with the tow-truck heavies. "They weren't bad guys. They knew the cops were on the way. They split."

Travis began hiding the Ranger.
"I'm stashing my truck every night in different places, totally stressing out about this. I feel I'm in some sort of CIA movie or something. Everybody I'm seeing is a potential tow-truck driver spying on me. I kid you not, you start thinking this."

On December 17 his vigilance faltered. Leaving work about 10 p.m., he drove the Ranger to his favorite hiding place, a friend's mother's condo parking lot, and walked home to sleep in peace.

Next morning the Ranger was gone. "Apparently I was followed that night," Travis deduces. "I kinda remember a car slowing down as I pulled in. I imagine they had a cell phone, and when I walked home, they shot in there and took it."

With no Ranger and no Thunderbird, Travis last week was getting rides from friends to man his cheerful post in the vitamins and herbs section of the Wild Oats Community Market. He reflected on his bad trip to Armstrong Ford.

"I signed a contract, I have an agreement.... I can't believe they're getting away with this," he mused, still a bit bewildered. "South Florida is definitely unique.

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Dan Lovely

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