If you’d told me Thursday morning that within 48 hours I’d be driving a car the cops told me was stolen, and helping transfer $20,000 cash from one bank to another, I’d have called you crazy.
And I’d be wrong.
The following story is about my girlfriend’s and my close encounter with car fraud, and a rapid series of unbelievable events where the institutions we trust and rely on completely let us down.
My girlfriend Allie has been in the market for a used car. After finding a reasonably priced, low-mileage Honda on Craigslist, we drive 45 minutes from Oakland to Livermore to check it out.
We pull up at a gas station in Livermore and meet “Johnny,” a middle-aged man with slicked back hair, narrowly tweezed eyebrows, and acne-scarred skin. Johnny’s demeanor is one of disengagement, answering our questions with pauses and one-word responses (which strikes us as odd for someone looking to sell a car).
After taking the car on a test drive, we decide to have a mechanic check it out. Johnny is glued to his phone the entire time, but the car is in great shape so Allie and I step aside to consider making an offer.
We both feel the dude reeks of what us gluten-free, bay area folk call “bad juju.” (I even notice Johnny’s shirt has the word “Crooks” on it.) However, Allie has needed a new car for some time and this one has less than 30,000 miles. “We can just burn sage to get the bad energy out,” she rationalizes. I support her in buying the car if that’s what she wants to do, and so despite our discomfort, Allie negotiates a price with Johnny and we head to Bank of America.
Waiting in line at the bank, Johnny tells me he bought his other car, a BMW, for $90,000. I’m intrigued and ask what he does for work. “I work for a magazine in marketing/sales. It’s pretty lucrative.” This surprises me as I’m pretty sure magazines are really struggling, and I say as much. “Oh, not this magazine” he explains, “it’s doing really well…”
Something definitely feels off about this guy, but I’m paranoid in general and it’s usually all for nothing, so I keep my mouth shut. At the counter, Allie gives her credentials to process payment, and the teller asks for Johnny’s ID to complete the cashier’s check. He hands it over and it reads “Tony xxxxx” — a completely different name than the one he’s told us — different than the name on the title and registration! Johnny (I’ll call him Tony from here on out) isn’t who he says he is!
Tony is quick to downplay this contradiction, “Oh the car is still in my uncle’s name, and my middle name is Johnny; it’s what everyone calls me.” He explains they just never switched the title over, but it should be no problem for us.
We’re seriously thrown off but the cashier’s check is already in progress, and we feel pressured. We take five minutes and Allie steps out to call her dad and mechanic for consultation. Meanwhile, I write down Tony’s real name and walk out to call the police who tell me they can’t provide information about this man or the car without reasonable cause.
Allie is advised the name difference shouldn’t matter and as long as we have the title and registration (we’d already done CarFax and feel confident the car is legit). So Allie gives Tony the cashier’s check for $10,300.
Tony tries to cash it immediately and the teller explains he needs a second form of ID, like a credit or debit card. All three of us are surprised when Tony admits to having none of these. “Who is this guy!?” we wonder. By this point, however, we’ve already handed him the check. The deal is done.
Before parting ways, Allie asks Tony for a handshake. He pauses before extending a limp arm that we both shake half-heartedly. My jaw tenses and my gut starts to siren. Something feels seriously off — as if the past hour’s discomfort has been on mute until this very moment.
I keep my mouth shut, however, congratulating Allie on the new ride. She decides to drive her old car back to Oakland and I’m to drive the new Honda. Chills shoot down my spine as I sit down in the driver’s seat.
I decide to google Tony’s full name — the one from his ID — and “Livermore” as we drive off. I glance down at the next red light, and click the first search result, a “Crime Report” link.
The new page loads and it’s definitely our guy — same town, same street address (a block from the gas station we met at) — and the following information:
ARREST DETAILS FROM ARREST ON 10/xx/2014 & 1/xx/2015:
— CONTEMPT OF COURT/CONTEMPTUOUS/ETC BEHAVIOR
— DRIVE W/LICENSE SUSPENDED FOR DRUNK DRIVING
— FORGERY: MANUFACTURE/SELL/ETC DECEPTIVE GOVERNMENT ID/DRIVERS LICENSE
— POSSESSION OF FALSE GOVERNMENT CARD — FALSE PERSONATION OF ANOTHER WHEREBY HE BECOMES LIABLE TO ANY SUIT OR TO PAY ANY SUM OF MONEY.
My heart starts to pound and my head furiously rings. The forgery crimes confirm my worst suspicion: We’ve been dealing with a real life criminal who’s inevitably duped us and now made his escape!
I flag Allie and we pull over as I frantically call the police, begging them to look up the new car’s license. Sensing my urgency, they oblige and confirm the worst: “Sir, that is a stolen vehicle! Get out of the car immediately! DO NOT DRIVE THIS CAR or you will be pulled over at gun point.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
The next 60 minutes feels like a full-blown Hollywood thriller that Allie and I are smack dab in the middle of:
Allie immediately rushes to the bank to cancel the cashier’s check, while I stay behind with the stolen car. I’m still on the phone with the police and get transferred to a local station, waiting on hold for what feels like an hour, but must’ve been just a few minutes.
Once connected, I again provide the license and after triple-confirming, the officer informs me that the car is NOT stolen and has a perfectly clean status. Their police system DOES show a nearly identical license plate that IS stolen and so they suggest a likely mixup with the prior officer.
My brain can’t fully process this new information. “Of course the car was stolen,” I rationalize. “The police just told me that!” It’s the only thing that makes sense at this point, but now the cops are telling me otherwise.
Allie, in the mean time, has rushed to the bank and successfully canceled the cashier’s check. The teller who’d originally processed us even admits to having had a really bad feeling, but didn’t want to get involved.
Allie speaks with two BofA tellers who both confirm the cashiers check is cancelled and provide her with a receipt showing the funds back in her account. She thanks them, leaves the bank and tries calling Tony.
Amazingly, he answers. She tells him the cashier’s check is canceled and that we want to return the car because we were told it has a stolen status. He sounds upset and says he’ll be right there.
Allie meets up with me just before Tony, who’s accompanied by a thuggish-looking friend. They immediately start yelling at us, enraged that we’re “profiling” them. After five minutes of intense verbal abuse, they finally drive away, but not before calling the police on speakerphone to prove the car’s not stolen.
We’re shaking, frightened out of our minds as we head back to Oakland, though feeling like we’ve dodged a huge bullet. I call back the police station who’d originally told me the car was stolen, to clarify. I again provide the license plate #, and the officer responds, “That’s showing up as a stolen… Oh wait, nevermind,” she tells me. “It’s… a clean title after all.”
“Huh? Are you 100% sure!?” I frustratedly ask. I tell her that I spoke to another police station that said it’s a clean title but I’m getting mixed information and just want to be sure.
This for some reason sets the officer off, and she starts yelling at me! “Well it doesn’t seem to matter what I say, so you can just believe whatever you want since you’re clearly just looking for peace of mind!” She keeps screaming at me and so I just hang up the phone, utterly flabbergasted. Aren’t the police supposed to be there for us?
We arrive safely in Oakland and call our friends and family to share this crazy story.
Thank god it’s over.
Allie logs into her BofA account the following afternoon and notices the reversed cashier’s check isn’t showing up. She calls the Livermore branch and speaks with the same teller, who delivers some horrible news:
“The cashier’s check refund wasn’t able to process, due to a new internal policy. I’m so sorry.”
“What? What does that mean!?” Allie pleads in disbelief.
“Unfortunately, the check is still valid and can be cashed at any time,” the teller states.
Allie calls me in tears. What can we do? We both hope Tony is still under the impression the cashier’s check has been canceled but don’t know for sure.
We call back BofA Livermore and speak with both the teller and the branch manager. They regretfully explain she’ll need the original cashier’s check (which Tony still has) to cancel the transaction. They’re sympathetic, but say there’s really nothing they can do. This is frustrating to say the least as the very same teller had told Allie the cashier’s check was canceled (we even have the receipt).
“We would NEVER have given back the car prior to exchanging the cashier’s check had we known it was still valid! We were misinformed by the bank!”
“We’re sorry but information can change,” the tellers say defensively.
We consider just calling up Tony and asking for the cashier’s check back, but neither of us are interested in making more contact with a known criminal who has every reason to be pissed at us. Besides, what would stop him from just turning around and cashing the check once we tipped him off?
We next call BofA’s fraud department and discover it may be possible to cancel a cashier’s check without the original if, and only if, a “surety bond” — similar to a bail bond — is purchased in twice the amount of the original cashier’s check. So there’s hope!
After five straight hours on the phone with BofA, we’re glad to have a possible plan. But it’s Friday night and no bond sellers are open over the weekend and time is of the essence — Tony could deposit Allie’s cashier’s check at any time and just walk away with her money. We end the night feeling oh-so vulnerable. Neither of us sleep much.
We wake up at 8:30am knowing there are limited hours at the Livermore BofA branch (10am-2pm on Saturdays) and want as much time as possible to reach a resolution. Our goal is to cancel the cashier’s check TODAY.
At the strike of 9:00 am, we begin calling every Bay-area Bank of America and insurance company that’s open, attempting to figure out what the hell a “surety bond” is and how we can get one ASAP. After seemingly going through every possible option, it’s clear we won’t get a surety bond until Monday at the earliest.
We do know from researching, however, that we need an extra $20k in Allie’s bank account to be eligible for the surety bond. Time is of the essence, and while her family in Arizona offers to wire-transfer funds or send a check; these options will take too long. We need cash, fast.
Fast forward one hour later, and we’re meeting Allie’s older brother at the Castro Chase Bank parking lot and 20 minutes after that, Allie walks out with two fat envelopes filled with Benjamins. She stuffs them at the very bottom of her backpack. Neither of us have traveled with anywhere close to this amount of dough.
Our route to BofA Castro with $20K cash is both terrifying and thrilling, as adrenaline pumps through my veins and every pedestrian is sized up as a potential mugger. We walk into the bank feeling straight out of an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ film; we’re even dressed up in formal attire (I don a sports jacket), to ensure we’re taken seriously.
Allie smoothly slides the two fat envelopes of cash under the counter for immediate deposit, but truth be told we’re both expecting a hassle. The teller doesn’t even blink — though she does nonchalantly compliment Allie’s scarf. “Is this just business as usual for a bank teller?” we wonder with awe.
We then drive straight to the Livermore bank and meet with the two original associates, the ones who’d incorrectly told Allie the cashier’s check was canceled. If anyone understands the severity of our situation, it’s them.
The one teller begins by saying in 10 years of banking, she’s never experienced a situation like this. She then explains, however that we need to wait until Monday when the head market manager is in before moving forward to cancel the cashier’s check.
We beg and plead with them to help expedite the cancelation of this check today. Every minute lost is another opportunity for Tony to cash in! We feel the bank is liable here, but the two bank employees become more and more stern and defensive, taking zero accountability. They offer what now seems like insincere apologies and wish us good day.
We next head to the Livermore police station and tell them the whole story, including the part about the police initially misinforming us about the car being stolen. We ask if there’s anything they can do, given Tony’s criminal record and our unique situation.
The police agree, this is a very unique situation. They offer to accompany us in retrieving the cashier’s check, but again, we wonder what’s to stop Tony from saying he’s thrown it out and then turning around to deposit it later?
The police admit that nothing’s to stop him from doing that, and since the case is based off an agreement between two parties, it’s technically classified as a civil matter. This means we wouldn’t be able to press charges if he did deposit the check; we’d have to go through small claims court to try and get the money back. Ughh. We start wondering if the ten grand is even worth all this time and energy…
We decide not to contact Tony, and instead hope to resolve this with the bank, even if it takes a few more days. We drive back to the Bay, feeling defeated and utterly exhausted. We pray that Tony doesn’t try to cash the cashier’s check.
The banks are closed on Sunday. So Tony can’t deposit the check and we can’t contact the bank. We rest and attempt to catch up on sleep.
My younger brother Elliot’s car is found stolen early Monday morning and is not located until later in the afternoon. It is just his second day in San Francisco after a road trip across the country. The day is off to an ominous start to say the least.
Allie calls the Livermore market manager first thing in the morning. He cannot waive protocol to put a stop on the cashier’s check and explains she has to purchase a surety bond in order to mitigate the loss. We had been told this guy had the power to put an immediate stop to the check and so Allie feels confused and angry. Tony will still be able to cash the check if he so desires. She hangs up without clear information.
I follow up immediately afterwards and get the same spiel. It’s awful frustrating to have been misinformed by a large institution that does nothing to help solve a problem they contributed to. I decide to get firm.
“I have your full name and don’t want to report your branch for misinformation, but that’s what I’ll be forced to do if you can not help expedite the canceling of this cashier’s check.” This firmness pays off in that I get a clear course of action for how Allie can obtain a surety bond and cancel the cashier’s check ASAP.
By mid-afternoon Allie heads to the BofA branch in Berkeley and is relieved to hear the cashier’s check still hasn’t been cashed. She then obtains the necessary documents and drives to a nearby Allstate insurance agency. She’s initially told surety bonds are processed on East Coast time and it might be too late in the day.
20 minutes later, however, the agent is finally able to obtain all of the information needed for the bond. Upon trying to print, however, the computer system at the entire Allstate branch crashes! Allie waits a painful 15 minutes until being told the crash can’t be fixed today. She calls me in disbelief at the “comedy of errors” we’re in, and the two if us begin calling other insurance brokers (that also act as notaries so we can take care of the bond by the end of the day).
After much trial and error (most brokers don’t know what a “surety bond” is and few of them are notaries), we finally find an incredible insurance broker located in El Sobrante. This particular broker has coincidentally been through a very similar situation, and helps create the bond and serve as the notary.
The bond is accidentally printed for $10,300 rather than twice that amount so an addendum is made to the paperwork. Allie pays the $422 for the bond. Before leaving, the broker offers encouragement and gives Allie a big hug. It’s amazing how much this small act of empathy means.
It’s now late afternoon and BofA closes in 20 minutes. Allie rushes to get there with the surety bond before they close, and there’s a lot riding on her. Up until now, we’ve been operating in full-on emergency mode — our life, our plans — everything has been on hold to get this surety bond in and cancel the cashier’s check. All the while, knowing every minute is another chance Tony has to cash the check and walk away.
Allie arrives at the bank, just before it closes. She quickly turns in the paperwork and the bond, but is told they cannot place a stop on the check until the following morning. While relieved it’s now out of our control, each delay breaths new life into our fear that Tony will cash the check.
A Berkeley BofA representative calls Allie at 8.35AM to say the bond was not accepted because of the addendum on the bond. Thankfully, the rep and insurance broker work together at a furious pace to get the new paper work processed. We are so grateful to finally have people on our side who understand the severity of the situation and are taking serious responsibility to help us out.
Allie receives multiple follow-up calls throughout the day, the best of them being around 3PM, stating that a stop has been put on the cashier’s check and that the money will be deposited back into her account within 48 hours.
After waiting three very long days in semi-disbelief due to having previously been let down by the bank, the $10,300 successfully goes back into Allie’s account.
We’re so exhausted from the whole experience, we don’t even celebrate. We’re just tired. And relieved.
While this happens to be the story of Allie and me, it could’ve realistically happened to anyone. We are two fairly intelligent people who took extreme actions based on extreme misinformation. We were simply told the wrong things at the wrong time and put our trust into systems we’ve been taught to believe in.
Are we naïve for buying the car to begin with and not trusting our gut? Absolutely. We have learned to always trust our gut.
Should we have been fully at fault to pick up the pieces from a broken system? We don’t think so.
This experience has opened our eyes to how impersonal big institutions can be and how easily they can lack accountability for their actions. Thankfully, it has also shown us how overwhelmingly impactful it is when a person behind these systems chooses to show up, reach out, and acknowledge your humanness.