WTF just happened with my scooter?
May 18, 2014 5:57 PM   Subscribe

Three weeks ago, I bought a used scooter from someone on Craigslist. One week ago, it was stolen- and, due to a baffling succession of quasi-sketchy events, I can't even have it registered as stolen. Help me figure out what happened, and what to do next.

On April 27th, I purchased a Kymco People S-200 (great bike!) from a private party on Craigslist. One day later, I ran several errands with it, then stopped off at my apartment to grab a bite to eat. Forty-five minutes later, it wouldn't start; turned out a tiny piece of plastic in the ignition system had snapped, requiring the entire thing to be overhauled. (The mechanic told me he'd never seen anything like it- that it almost seemed that the damage was done intentionally. Odd. Vandals, I guess...)

That afternoon, the seller, Sheila, texted me to ask how I liked the scoot. When I told her the news, I was shocked when she offered to foot the entire $250 repair bill- and actually followed through.

The part had to be shipped from Taiwan, so I didn't get the scooter back til last Saturday. I rode it around for one glorious afternoon, then parked it in an alley, where I got a parking ticket. I made a mental note to pay it right away- I hadn't yet registered the vehicle, and I didn't want the former owner to get a notice of the infraction in the mail.

On Sunday, the bike was stolen.

When I went to file a police report, I realized I didn't know its licence plate number. (As luck would have it, the title and paperwork were in the bike's glove compartment.) So I called Sheila... and texted... and called again... and emailed her... but she never got back to me. Eventually, I realized the licence plate number was on the parking ticket I'd gotten, so I called the police again that evening.

When the police ran the number I gave them, they came up with some startling information: the plates didn't match the bike. It seems strange to me that a fairly conservative-looking woman in her '50s with enough discretionary income to pay for the repairs- actually, judging by her house (where I signed the bill of sale), she's quite wealthy- would've taken the tag off a Yamaha (not reported stolen, apparently) just to avoid a $30 plate fee. It does, however, sort of explain why she wouldn't get back to me.

So here's my problem: Without a VIN number or a correct plate number, the scoot can't be registered as a stolen vehicle. While this makes sense, it seems unfathomable that I'm completely SOL here.

Also, I'm just generally having a really difficult time making sense of what happened here.

Any ideas?
posted by t(h)om(as) to Law & Government (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible the officer who wrote the ticket transposed some of the plate numbers? Or was the handwriting hard to read? Not sure how that might help you actually do anything about your problem, though. Maybe you could get a nice, patient police officer to try looking up some permutations of the number on the ticket.
posted by Weeping_angel at 6:20 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Did she have someone steal it back from you?
posted by bensherman at 6:25 PM on May 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Is it possible the mechanic has the plate number or VIN number?
posted by mekily at 6:29 PM on May 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

The mechanic may have noted the VIN, give him a call and see what he has in his paperwork.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:31 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd try and get someone at the police station who was willing to work with me on searching by make/model and scrolling through the list to see there were any that were blatantly the same plate but transposed, or a T instead of a 7 but otherwise the same, etc.
posted by emptythought at 6:31 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you insured it yet? Because you'd have had to give your insurance company the VIN.
posted by Weeping_angel at 7:06 PM on May 18, 2014

Long shot: the ignition part was deliberately damaged when “Sheila” sold it to you, so it would fail quickly. Mechanic is complicit in theft; the $250 is his take for informing on the scooter's whereabouts (maybe by fitting one of these trackers). Vehicle is probably now sporting new body panels and a new plate for sale to a fresh Craigslist rube in another city.
posted by scruss at 7:15 PM on May 18, 2014

To suggest some sort of conspiracy, while not out of the question, is pretty unlikely. Not to mention that the legwork in putting together a scam of this sort would probably work best with a car, or larger more expensive vehicles.

Your scooter, a high target theft item, got stolen before you insured it and before you registered it in your name.

What you do, is chalk this up to experience and register vehicles ASAP...and sweet jesus, you don't leave a title in your glovebox; title is where ownership lies, not who calls it in stolen.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:26 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I dunno. I'm not sure why you're connecting Sheila to the ignition vandalism, and not the people who stole your scooter. Doesn't it seem more likely that somebody tried to steal it the first time, but instead broke the ignition...then once it was back and fixed, they tried again and succeeded?

Then if you look at it from Sheila's point of view.... She sells her scooter to this nice young man, maybe gets more for it than she expected, and he happily drives away. She sends a friendly text a few days later, and he reports that he had a bizarre mechanical problem. Since Sheila is well-off, and got such a good deal in the sale, she decides to pay it forward and cover his repair bill.

Now, out of the blue, the nice young man starts calling and texting and emailing about how the scooter was stolen, but inconveniently he hadn't registered it yet, and didn't write down the plate number, and left the title in the glove box, and zomg please help... She's probably wondering what kind of scam YOU'RE trying to pull.
posted by gueneverey at 8:03 PM on May 18, 2014 [12 favorites]

Oh, man...what a mess. First, there are reasons why you're not supposed to just ride around on a motorcycle (which is what your scooter is) with the previous owner's plates. She wasn't supposed to have even let you take those plates with you; she should have retained them and given you the title and nothing else. Her mistake, either from ignorance or some other reason (knowing the plates were "borrowed" from another bike and the Kymco was unregistered, perhaps?). So that's the first problem, which the others tend to flow down from, unfortunately.

And the title ... that's the really horrible part. If you had the title, you'd have a leg to stand on, since the title is really what defines ownership.
Sidenote to other motorcycle/scooter buyers: do not under any circumstances ever put a title in the glovebox / storage bin / under-seat compartment. Ever. Not even once. It's better for the title to be crumpled up in your jacket pocket alongside your sunglasses and loose change and used chewing gum than to be inside the bike's storage compartment. If someone steals your ride and the title is in it, particularly if the title has been freshly signed by the previous owner ... you can very easily be entirely screwed. (Getting unscrewed out of that situation requires the cooperation of the previous owner; horror stories abound on motorcycle forums. Badness.)
And looking at it from the police's perspective, given that they don't know you from Adam, it's hard to say conclusively if they were to go out and track down your bike that it's actually yours. The new "owner" has the title, and depending on what's filled out on it and how easy it is to change, could even get it legally re-titled and registered to them. (Although it might just get broken up for parts, it's not implausible that the thief could sell it on to a third party, and they could take the signed title to the DMV and become the owner of record. Done right, it'd be impossible for the DMV or police to tell that they're not the bona fide legal owner.) It'd be your word against their paperwork.

Unfortunately I don't see how you can easily unwind this situation at this point. The bike+signed title, especially unregistered, is basically a bearer instrument. I think you're out the cost of the scooter.

My reading of your question is that you're wondering at this point if you were scammed. That's potentially the case: maybe the Kymco was stolen to begin with, and you were the third-party who unknowingly bought a hot ride, only to get it stolen back, and now they're busily selling it to somebody else on Craigslist. It's a strange scam though, because if you'd hung on to the title suddenly it wouldn't be as easy to turn around and re-sell the thing. (They'd have to either get a new title from the DMV, forge one, or sell it without a title, the latter of which is a sure sign of a hot bike.) Plus depending on what you physically wrote on the title, they'd have to erase all that in order to "sell" the thing again using the same title. Of course, not all scams are repetitive; someone could have just sensed an opportunity to make some quick cash off of you as a one-shot deal, and then took the scooter back. But I'm doubtful.

Scooters get stolen a lot. In my area they're stolen even more frequently than traditional motorcycles. (Not entirely sure why that is. Maybe it's the expensive parts...?) I think you just got really unlucky, in that the error about the plates on the part of the seller was compounded by your error about the title, and then some thief grabbed the bike just as a target of opportunity.

About the only thing I think you could do, would be to somehow convince the previous owner that you are not the crazy scammer that from her perspective you may well appear to be, and hope that she has some records around with the scooter's VIN on it (original sales documents, insurance card, whatever). With that, maybe you could go to the police. However, if I were the previous owner, given that she stands only to lose from you going to the police (and in doing so revealing whatever funny business she was up to with the swapped plates and presumptive lack of registration and probably insurance), I might not be answering your calls either. You may be stuck.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:18 PM on May 18, 2014

Kadin2048, while I don't know where t(h)om(as) lives, I do know that in the state I live in (California) plates go with the vehicle upon a sale. DMV laws differ widely in different states.
posted by mollymayhem at 8:46 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting; I was unaware that any states let you get away with selling a vehicle with the plates on it. (Seems almost all northeast states frown on it, and generally require the seller to retain/return the plates as part of canceling the registration. Maybe it's an East Coast thing.) Doesn't seem to materially change the situation though, except that if the requirement to return the plates doesn't exist it might make the seller's behavior less sketchy since they didn't act abnormally.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:25 PM on May 18, 2014

It definitely occurred to me that the seller might be up to no good, but I didn't want to sound like a wingnut, so I waited til I had company in that department. Thanks, bensherman and scruss! ;)

To fan the flames of suspicion (in my mind, at least):

1. When I parked the scooter to run in for lunch, I was literally gone for 45 minutes, max.
2. When I ran in for lunch, it was lunchtime. I live in the business district of downtown Seattle: not exactly prime time for theives or vandals. (If it weren't for the mechanic's comment on how the damage seemed almost intentional, I'd have assumed it was my own fault.)
3. Sheila wouldn't have needed any kind of tracking device. I gave her my address so she could drop off a couple of accessories she'd forgotten to give me when I bought the bike.

The license plate thing, though, is still really weird. I'll definitely call the mechanic tomorrow- if it had a different plate while under her ownership (which, presumably, it did), he might have that info too, since Sheila had the bike serviced there since 2010. It also seems possible that I might be able to convince Sheila- perhaps with legal backing- to give me the VIN, which she undoubtedly has recorded somewhere in her insurance paperwork (thanks, weeping_angel). I have email and text correspondence with her, starting with my response to her Craigslist ad- seems that should suffice w/r/t proof of sale. Then again, would have any legal obligation to re-furnish something I should already have in my possession...?
posted by t(h)om(as) at 11:17 PM on May 18, 2014

Kadin2048- It might be best legal practices to surrender the plates to the seller upon purchase- but on the west coast, so long as they're nearing expiration (the plates, not the seller), it's definitely more common for the buyer to hold onto them so he won't be ticketed during the week-long registration grace period. In my experience, at least.
posted by t(h)om(as) at 11:29 PM on May 18, 2014

Then again, would have any legal obligation to re-furnish something I should already have in my possession...?

Refusing to cooperate when someone is filing a report for a felony theft? I can't see her legally allowed to tell a cop "I just don't want to deal with this".

Forty-five minutes later, it wouldn't start; turned out a tiny piece of plastic in the ignition system had snapped, requiring the entire thing to be overhauled.
I don't see a scammer damaging a scooter he or she is planning on stealing back.

I imagine she's honest and frustrated because selling this has turned into serial headaches. And she may think you're a scammer.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:41 PM on May 18, 2014

If this were a scam, it would be among the crappiest and most convoluted scams ever run for such a piddling sum of money (the value of a used scooter less $250).

I think it is entirely crazy to assume any foul play or malice on the part of the seller. The way I see the series of events is this:

1. You buy scooter as-is.
2. Scooter breaks.
3. Seller, out of empathy, goes way above and beyond the call of duty in an as-is sale and pays for the repair.
4. You get a parking ticket and either: a. the parking officer writes the plate number down wrong; or b. it turns out the seller had been, aware or not, using the bike with the wrong plates (not that uncommon).
5. Bike gets stolen.
6. You try to contact seller and she wants nothing to do with you, because she never expected this sale to cause so many headaches and figures this is REALLY not her problem any more, possibly confounded by anxiety about 4b above.

The way I see it, you are SOL. Now, remember, it's overwhelmingly likely with a stolen vehicle that you would be SOL anyway even if you had registered the bike properly and had the title in hand.

Chalk it up as a valuable learning experience. Lessons you should have learned from this:

1. As-is means as-is. Expect that you will probably have to put some money into any used vehicle you buy sooner than later.
2. Register and insure any new vehicle IMMEDIATELY. I have purchased used motorcycles before and the longest I ever rode them before registering and insuring them was from the sellers house directly to my house where I...
3. Lock your bike properly. If someone, even with a spare key to the ignition, can quickly steal your bike in broad daylight, it's not really locked.

Also, I'm sorry. I've had my motorcycle stolen and it really sucks.
posted by 256 at 6:38 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your scooter, a high target theft item, got stolen before you insured it and before you registered it in your name.

I'll generally agree with that, but, just for fun:

judging by her house (where I signed the bill of sale)

Taking a page from rental scams, was the house actually open and was she ever inside? Or did the transaction just take place entirely in the driveway of a nice house?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:00 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi there t(h)om(as), I'm a cop in a medium sized Canadian city...

What Kadin2048 said.

Yeah, I was all ready to type out a long answer, but I think I just agree with what Kadin2048 says. I don't think you've been scammed (although anything is possible I just don't see the angle).
posted by BlueSock at 2:16 PM on May 20, 2014

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