Am I just a victim of inept bureaucracy? Can I do anything?
May 20, 2009 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I have had a perfect storm of bureaucratic screwups take $400 and many hours of my life from me. Can I get my money back? I've been fighting up to now with no success so I don't even know who or what to do anymore. Help! (Companies involved: AAA, DMV, LA Parking Violations Bureau)

Okay, so here's the deal. I hate that it's long because I do need people to read it to get my problem. But... it's a bit convoluted, unfortunately.

1) April 2008 -- I realized I hadn't gotten a car insurance bill from AAA in a while (even though I hadn't changed billing addresses in many years) and it should've been due. I drove straight from my father's memorial service to AAA with a checkbook and was told by a nice kid named Troy that everything was fine, I was good, I didn't need to pay that day, but I should wait for a bill.

2) May 2008 -- I paid my registration fees to the DMV. Strangely, I didn't receive any stickers in the mail.

3) June -- Still no stickers. I went to the DMV. They said I had no insurance. I didn't know what was going on. I called Troy. He said there was no problem. I was insured. It was their issue. I should go back to the DMV and get my stickers.

4) I go back to the DMV. Twice. They tell me both times that it's not handled. I try to fix it. The DMV insists it's still not handled.

5) June -- I call the AAA office. Troy is no longer employed there. People in the office won't help me. I call AAA's 800 number to complain. I'm told my account needs updating. My policy is "revised" and I receive a bill immediately afterwards which I pay. I'm told this should clear up the problem with the DMV.

6) July -- The DMV still won't give me stickers. I start to get parking tickets for expired registration even though I know I have paid my fees and have insurance. AAA tells me they are fixit tickets and it should be no problem, that I should be able to get my stickers immediately and clear them all up without paying anything.

7) For months afterwards I have a great deal of back and forth with the DMV and AAA. Hours of my life. Finally it's supposedly cleared up. By this time I have three fixit tickets. I'm told they'll be cleared easily when I have my stickers... so I keep making DMV appointments and calling AAA.

8) November 2008 -- I'm finally assured I should get my stickers. However, when I go to the DMV for the fifth time, they tell me that prior to giving me my sticker I now owe $300 in fees for the tickets due to the time that passed since they were issued. I tell them they were fixit tickets but I can't clear the tickets without the stickers. They tell me they can't give me the stickers if I don't pay $300 and I should call AAA because they'll take care of everything for me.

9) December 2008 -- I call AAA's 800 number to get an update on what's going on since nobody was calling me back. I'm informed for the first time that Troy had screwed up my policy and I actually *was* driving uninsured from March to June. Apparently this is why the people in his office wouldn't help me, because it was covered up. I find out my entire policy was REWRITTEN FROM SCRATCH in June and I didn't even know until December.

9) December until April 2009 -- AAA tells me they'll handle the problem and I shouldn't pay the tickets because it was their mistake, that I should get my stickers soon but I have to talk to the LA Parking Violations Bureau to find out what they need from AAA. LA Parking tells me what they need from AAA. I tell AAA. Then in April 2009 I am informed by e-mail that nobody at AAA can help to clear up the issue. It's suggested that only the DMV can fix it. DMV says I have to talk to the LA Parking Violations Bureau or AAA. LA Parking Violations Bureau says I should talk to the DMV. Everyone is pretty rude.

10) April 2009 -- After over a year of fighting this and having no registration stickers, I narrowly escape getting my car impounded by the police. I have a total breakdown of built-up frustration in a AAA/DMV office when I'm informed in a scripted tone that nobody can help me, that I now owe $400 and that I should've paid the tickets when I got them instead of expecting them to be fixed (even though AAA promised me they'd handle it). Yeah, thanks a lot folks.

Sorry that's so long... but am I just out $400 and a year of my life because people suck? Should I just be a victim? Can't I fight this and get that money back? That's a lot of money to me right now and I didn't do anything wrong in the first place!

Thoughts? Advice? I want this in my past... but I'm also really pissed off beyond belief at how I've been treated and how much time of my life has been unapologetically wasted.

Thanks for listening to my tale of woe.
posted by miss lynnster to Law & Government (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Might I add... I DEFINITELY now wish I'd just paid the stupid fixit tickets in the beginning and bitten the bullet to get my stickers... but there was no way I was going to foresee how out of control and long it was going to snowball.

I was trusting people to follow through on their professional promises to me.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:48 PM on May 20, 2009

Pay the tickets.

Register your car.

Sue AAA.
posted by felix betachat at 8:51 PM on May 20, 2009

Response by poster: Would I actually have a chance if I took them to small claims or something?
posted by miss lynnster at 8:58 PM on May 20, 2009

Pay the tickets, register your car, take AAA to small claims.

And report them to the state insurance commissioner with all the detials. That generally lights a fire under their ass.
posted by fshgrl at 8:58 PM on May 20, 2009 [6 favorites]

My opinion is that you make an appointment with an agent at AAA... can you go there in person? Document everything that you've mentioned here, then visit the California Department of Insurance's web site and print a Request for Assistance form and fill it out. Take the completed form with you to the meeting and tell them you will file it with the state unless they fix the problem to your satisfaction right away.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:59 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Send an EECB to the executive offices of AAA. Lay out the situation briefly, and then explain succinctly what you would like them to do about it (e.g. pay you $400, have AAA contact the DMV to straighten this out, etc...). Ideally, this should get your issue in the hands of someone who actually has the power to do something about it. Good luck!

Also, at least in some AAA offices in California, they provide limited DMV services such as car registration. Can you drag Troy over to the AAA DMV window downstairs and have the left hand of AAA talk to the right?
posted by zachlipton at 9:01 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've documented it. I've been to AAA a HANDFUL of times. I even drove from Los Angeles to their Del Mar office since that's where Troy was. The woman there promised to handle it and it took her three months to finally tell me she couldn't. I have 8 pages of saved e-mailed back and forth about it.

I'll check out that form. I just get the impression nobody can do anything. At this point, they just shuttle me from cubicle to cubicle. Last week I was there for four hours and left just as frustrated as when I arrived. The final guy who was trying to help me felt so badly that he hugged me while I cried.

Honestly, it's just been mind blowing.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:03 PM on May 20, 2009

Oh, and I'd just pay the $400 for the tickets and get yourself registered, then go to AAA with that form and tell them you either want the money from them or you'll file a complaint with the state.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:03 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To zachlipton: Troy is history. He was apparently fired and is long gone. And the DMV/AAA office in Burbank is where I spent 4 hours last week. I tried to get people to talk to each other. Still no progress.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:05 PM on May 20, 2009

I know you said that $400 is a lot of money to you right now, but $400 will essentially fix the problem. Your time has a value, and you probably spent more than $400 worth trying to straighten this out already, so at this point, any further effort you devote to this is like throwing good money after bad. You're clearly being driven crazy over this. Isn't it worth $400 to you for the peace of mind that putting this behind you will bring?

As a pragmatist, I'd say pay the bill to take care of the immediate problem, and follow the steps outlined above to recover your money at your leisure without the stress of having to get this resolved right away or else your car will be impounded... Do the executive email carpet bomb, complaint to the state, and small claims suit, but pay off the tickets and get the car registered first.

Then, after everything's resolved (or you're willing to throw in the towel on trying to get $400 from AAA) shop for another insurance company.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:14 PM on May 20, 2009

Pay immediately. You need to be in compliance with the law immediately. You need to stop any potential bleeding now. You are currently driving an unregistered vehicle and impound would cost you tons. Literally do not drive again until you have those tickets.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:37 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pay the DMV their money, full stop, do not pass go. In a perfect world, the DMV would be understanding, but this is not a perfect world, and you will be in more hurt the longer the DMV is owed their pound of flesh.

Then, as others have said above, contact AAA with what you want (money to cover their screwup that you had to pay for, presumably). But I would do this *in writing*, certified return receipt, so you have documented proof of your complaint and, if they do respond, a piece of paper from them with their side.

At this point, you will either be made whole (they'll pay up) or you go to the state board that deals with insurers, and the state AG, and just for laughs, send a letter to your local consumer affairs muckraker TV reporter too.

Or you can skip this and go straight to small claims, if you think that the court time is worth it (probably not for a few hundred, assuming you're making a reasonable wage).

Good luck, and please let us know how this works out.
posted by zippy at 9:51 PM on May 20, 2009

When I was dealing with a drawn out and frustrating issue with AT&T, a coworker suggested I contact a local TV show that highlights bad customer service. (I was in Utah and contacted Get Gephardt. Maybe Tim Duffy would work?)

In any case, I received an email response saying it was a valid issue and they'd see what they could do. A day later my wife got a phone call from an omnipotent customer-service rep from AT&T asking what she could do to resolve the issue. My wife responded with what we'd been asking for all along, the rep agreed to it and the problem was solved.

I was both elated and amazed at how fast it got fixed when I got in touch with the right people.
posted by jaden at 10:26 PM on May 20, 2009

1. Pay the tickets before they become bigger tickets and arrest warrants.

2. Register your car.

3. Call a different insurance company. (Geico? Progressive?). Set up a policy and wait until the effective date.

4. Call AAA and cancel your policy.

5. Take whatever legal action you can, keeping in mind that you're almost certainly out of luck (and $400).

Why call a different insurance company? Because you just spent a year dealing with their inept bureaucracy just to get proof of insurance and try to save $400. Now imagine dealing with the same people and the same incompetence, only this time you've got $12,000 in damage to your car plus $20,000 in medical bills. That's what could happen if you're in an accident.

I would personally pay the $400, maybe write a few angry letters, and consider myself lucky to find out how terrible the insurance was before I had to make a claim.

Also, I would have changed insurance companies back at your step 3 or 4. You could have called Progressive while standing at the DMV, and less than an hour later they would have faxed them a proof of insurance. But hindsight is 20/20...
posted by mmoncur at 11:02 PM on May 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

You know who is good? Traffic court judges. I got a "fix it" ticket (driving without registration and with the wrong address on my driver's license, having just moved), then screwed up paying this ticket (busy - first consulting gig of my life - thought I was too busy to take time to handle mundane life details), and I finally opened a letter to find that either got my driver's license was suspended or on the verge of it or something (this is kind of unbelievably irresponsible to me now) and that I owed some amazing amount of money.

I sent a check for the money (!) and evidence of fixing the problem, but on the advice of the person answering the phone at the county courthouse's traffic department, I also included this two-page letter explaining what happened. It wasn't 100% my fault (just 95%): the letters about the ticket had gone to my old address, even though I'd given them the new address during the traffic stop and DMV had somehow gotten my new address, and also, I'd gotten the run-around about how to have things "fixed." I took responsibility for how I should have followed up even with any letter from them, and mentioned all the graduation-moving-first gig chaos. I asked them to fix the "fix it" ticket, which was being charged in full since I'd never sent in documentation of fixing it, and I asked to waive the late fees except for one early one that I felt was undeniably my responsibility. They waived what I requested and sent a check with the refund balance, and I ultimately paid some small fraction of the original letter.

It was amazing to find that in at least one corner of the system, there was a real person who was somewhat understanding.

The other piece of info I have is that I've definitely registered my car with unpaid parking tickets -- they just weren't "outstanding" or "delinquent" or whatever. They look this stuff up in a central computer, and when my outstanding non-registration issue was handled by the court (see story above), it updated automatically with the DMV. So, if LA Parking can cancel or reset them to non-delinquent or whatever, you should be able to register your car. At that point, you could go fix the "fix it" tickets.

Since you're insured, AAA should be generally out of the picture, except as the organization to take revenge against as the cause of all your woes, but I have no idea how to get back at AAA.

Here is a short summary of my long-winded rambling:
You probably don't have to fix the tickets before you can register the car. They just can't be delinquent/past-due/whatever. If you can get LA Parking to "reset" them to "undelinquent" or grant them an "extension" or something, I think you will be able to register your car. Then you'd have the stickers you need to permanently fix the tickets. If the parking clerk cannot help you, I would try to deal with the parking judge either through a letter or by going to traffic court. Hopefully, your extensive documentation will persuade them to show some understanding. Good luck!!
posted by salvia at 11:10 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Talk to a lawyer.
posted by delmoi at 12:18 AM on May 21, 2009

Does the newspaper (or the local TV/radio news) in your area have a consumer columnist or a traffic/driving ombudsman?

They seem like the right kind of person who could get someone at AAA to apologize and pay all your fees up to this point.
posted by bcwinters at 5:43 AM on May 21, 2009

If the government says the car isn't registered, it isn't registered. You drove an unregistered car, you got tickets. You might or might not win in small claims court.

AAA's car insurance is overpriced, and clearly their service sucks. Shop around. AAA is a high-profit enterprise that has great name recognition. I have not found them to be worthwhile. Bets way to get back at a shitty vendor is to not buy any more of their stuff.
posted by theora55 at 6:58 AM on May 21, 2009

Let me second the advice to take the tickets to court. That's where "fix it" tickets (in reality no such thing) like this will be resolved.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:52 AM on May 21, 2009

Maybe try posting it to No idea how effective it is, but the exposure might shake them up a bit.
posted by jasper411 at 12:38 PM on May 21, 2009

$400 here or there is just part of the "total ownership cost" of an automobile. If it weren't this it would be the same for replacing your clutch or your axle or your gas tank or they raised your insurance for no particular reason or they raised the rate for your parking spot, or whatever.

If you don't like to, or can't, pay the extra $400 here or there, just get rid of the car. If you keep the car, just plan on the occasional $200-$1000 expense and live with the knowledge that is part of owning a big, moderately complicated but somewhat convenient hunk of machinery.

As to more immediate concerns: Pay tickets, then get the car registered, then switch insurance companies ASAP. Never do business with AAA again and recommend the same to all your friends and acquaintances. That is the actual, and effective, way to stick it to AAA.

You can spend a lot of time writing nasty letters, taking them to small claims court, and otherwise trying to get your $400 back. In the end, you may or may not get it--or part of it--back.

My suggestion is instead of that, eat the $400 (you might actually save more than that over time if you find a better insurance company to replace AAA) and instead of spending time & energy getting even, spend that same amount of time and energy doing something you actually enjoy.

If you're really that tight on money, spend the same time you would have spent getting revenge working an extra job. You'll come out ahead financially and emotionally.
posted by flug at 12:43 PM on May 21, 2009

I, too, have had my frustrations with AAA (and far too many times, those frustrations have resulted in hours of my time being lost for THEIR errors). So, I empathize.

Here's what I would suggest (it's basically a specific-to-you summary of some of the advice above):

First, make sure your car isn't going to get impounded/re-ticketed, or any other form of parking!nastygram.

That may be through: traffic court, payment plan with the DMV, EECBing (see Consumerist) AAA Executive offices, contacting the local news station's consumer fraud person (see below for more specific info) and/or contacting the California Department of Insurance (it has a consumer hotline!).

Second, if you haven't already, contact the Department of Insurance. AAA is a pretty big name, but they still should be willing to take down your complaint information and act on it.

Also, you should talk to the local news station's consumer fraud person if you haven't already. I would suggest in your case, despite your move to LA, that you stick with the San Diego people, simply because the most egregious parts (Troy) occurred in San Diego and also because San Diego is a smaller media market and they may be faster to respond than LA.

I always laugh at the antics of Consumer Bob (NBC San Diego) but he's not coughing up his contact info. Michael Turko is at KUSI, and since they're super-local to SD, they might be even faster to respond.

Likewise if you do contact the stations in LA, I would have suggested KCAL9, but they're not independent anymore. Here's the pitch page/contact page for KTLA instead.

Good luck, recognize that at some point you will reach your limit, and accept that you may not get justice--but then again sometimes contacting the right people solves the problem.
posted by librarylis at 7:32 PM on May 21, 2009

« Older Help me avoid Memorial Day weekend eastern...   |   What is this robot-girl-filled anime? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.