Bogus Damage Charges from a Corporate Landlord DC Edition
August 26, 2014 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Several roommates and I moved out of an apartment in DC this summer that is owned by a large corporate company (coughAvalonBaycough). We’d been in the apartment for almost four years. Before we moved out, staff from the building signed off on paperwork stating that there was no visible damage. A month later we get an incredibly bogus set of damage charges from the building for nearly $1,000. We already got our security deposit back, but they’re threatening to send us to collections over these new charges.

You Are Not My Lawyer and no suggestions will be taken as legal advice, but…

The staff that actually works in our building (who signed off on our walk through) thinks we’re being fleeced, but all billing goes through an anonymous call center that’s taken a page out of the Comcast employee manual.

The only advice we’ve received is to pay up and head to small claims court. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the charges are so bogus as to be potentially just plain fraud (maybe?). Any suggestions for how to handle this so we don’t have to go to court?

For example, we were charged $250 for “wall damage” in addition to the $500 “other” charge without invoices. My understanding is that municipal law in DC requires all damage charges to include an actual invoice, so we requested the invoices. After an additional 6 weeks we were just given some very vague receipts from the building, not copies of the original invoices, which did not include a breakdown of charges by labor or materials.

The supposed “wall damage” invoice did not include a single charge for $250. There was no wall damage, so that’s not surprising. No one over at the corporate call center could tell us what the $250 was supposed to be for. Much like that infamous Comcast call, they just keep repeating the same script over and over even when it makes no sense.

The $500 “other” charge was for re-finishing the vinyl coating on the wood floors of the entire unit. There was no floor damage at all, not even normal wear and tear. The building alleges one corner of one room had light scuffs, which I would say is bogus, but admittedly we don’t have photos of that specific corner of the floor to prove there wasn't damage. I would say that if they were just charging us for that room, that would be within reason, but the whole apartment?

We have photos from when we moved out in addition to our signed walk-through saying that there was no damage, and at least the $250 charge seems to be completely bogus. In which case, is that just blatant fraud?

I’m also concerned about their company policy of not having any dispute process of any kind. After hours of trying to talk to the call center reps, we were randomly sent to collections today despite being told in writing that the dispute was “being reviewed.”
Calling them only leads to talking to call center reps who repeat the same script over and over and over. Today we finally talked to a manager after being hung up on a couple of times. The manager said he would knock 10% off the total, but only if we pay up today- which we declined.

The DC Office of the Tenant Advocate wasn't super helpful. They said that we'd probably have a good case in small claims court, but the person I talked to didn't seem to know any details about the municipal law regarding damages that aren't taken out of a security deposit.

Any strategies on how to try to get through to the powers that be at corporate headquarters to get them to drop these charges?
posted by forkisbetter to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're not the first they've done this to.

File a complaint at the Better Business Bureau. It looks like they have been able to resolve many billing and collections issues with them.

Good Luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

Companies don't just get to say "You owe me money" and have it stick.

Next time they call, say "I have a document signed by representatives of your company that says there was no damage. I have nothing further to say to you." *click*
posted by Etrigan at 7:24 PM on August 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

A lot of debt disputes advise you to start by asking the company or collections agency for proof of the debt and how it was calculated, in writing. Seems like with their bogus claims and shoddy record-keeping, that would be a good place to start. The rest of the common advice about a bogus debt with regard to credit scores, etc., like notifying the credit record people that you dispute this debt, might also be fruitful, so that this doesn't trash your credit history and credit score.
posted by foodmapper at 7:51 PM on August 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

fuck the better business bureau. get into landlord tenant court. its fucking dc. i can't think of a more pro-tenant jurisdiction. call the office of the tenant advocate.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:41 PM on August 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

you received bad advice. DO NOT PAY THIS BILL, THAT WOULD GIVE THEM THE UPPER HAND. i would either ignore them until they take some sort of action, or tell the anonymous call center "i have signed documents from the on-site management saying the place was in good shape when i left, so come and get me motherfuckers." also "do not call me again or i will sue you under the fair debt collections act."
posted by bruce at 8:58 PM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

A lot of debt disputes advise you to start by asking the company or collections agency for proof of the debt and how it was calculated, in writing. Seems like with their bogus claims and shoddy record-keeping, that would be a good place to start. The rest of the common advice about a bogus debt with regard to credit scores, etc., like notifying the credit record people that you dispute this debt, might also be fruitful, so that this doesn't trash your credit history and credit score.

In addition, when you ask them in writing to provide proof of the cost and how it was calculated before you will pay, ask them to also provide 1) itemized proof that the damage in question was not present when you moved in by providing copies of the move-out paperwork and any and all related damage invoices they processed for the previous tenant, paid or not paid, and 2) an internal paper trail documenting that their previous signed paperwork documenting no damage was the result of fraud and/or incompetence on the part of their employees which they have corrected. This has worked like a charm for me in two instances.
posted by beanie at 9:02 PM on August 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

IANAL/TINLA, etc. I am however a resident of D.C. who once sued a landlord for a security deposit several years ago. At the time, at least, D.C. law was extremely tenant friendly. My landlord decided that he was just going to keep our security deposit despite our phone calls, letters, etc. The deal was that the landlord had 30 days from the date we moved out (I think? or the end of the lease?) to either 1) return the security deposit or 2) send the tenant a letter explaining why the landlord was keeping the deposit, including itemized expenses ("you put holes in the wall, they cost $50 to fix").

Since we weren't getting anywhere trying to reach him ourselves, we sued our landlord in small claims court. We even had to hire a process server to serve him. On our day in court, the judge literally said at the beginning, if you are here because you are a landlord and a former tenant is suing you to get their security deposit back and you did not send them a letter within 30 days explaining why you were keeping the security deposit, this is not going to be a fun day for you. So husband and I were feeing psyched.

They made us sit down with a mediator first. After mediation, the landlord offered to give us less than 50% of the security deposit. We said, dude, the judge said at the beginning of this thing that you were totally wrong, we want the whole thing. So we went to the judge. The landlord told the judge that we lied to him (false) and we made a mess (nope). The judge said, were you listening earlier? So we won. I think we got a check from the landlord exactly 29 days later.

I'm not sure what you should do. I think that you should start by saying that you will only deal with written communications regarding this matter. If they send you to collections, dispute the bill in writing within 30 days. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has advice and letters you can use. I think that if you dispute the debt, it's on collections to prove that it's a legit debt. Send the letter by certified mail so they can't pretend they didn't receive it. Take notes on all conversations, make copies of everything you send them and that they send you. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 9:20 PM on August 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, this one is EASY!!

Basically, you're going to treat it like any other erroneous bill (money you don't actually owe) that gets sent to collections (even tho this is not in collections yet - if it even gets that far.)



- Get an address. Send a certified/return receipt letter demanding proof of the damage, all repair receipts, etc.

State in the letter that you dispute there was any damage, that you have pictures. Include a copy of your move out paperwork. Do not include any pics.

- Then, keep your documentation of this correspondence and wait.

- If they call you, remind them of the date you sent the letter and that you are only communicating with them in writing.

- If a collections agency calls or writes you, mail them a copy of your certified letter to the landlord and a copy of the move out paperwork. You'll have to do this in writing to formally dispute the charges and keep it off of your credit reports.

- If it ends up on your credit reports, same procedure with the bureaus as with the collection agency.


My hope is you can shut this down with that one letter to the ex landlord.

Do call the DC agency Ironmouth suggested, because sometimes there are financial penalties you can win against landlords who pull shenanigans like this, depending on the jurisdiction.

Good luck! Just be thorough and write that letter. You'll be fine.
posted by jbenben at 10:17 PM on August 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nthing what Jbenben said. Send a certified letter, with copies of all documentation and politely tell them to pound salt.

Keep all copies of everything, including receipts from the post office.

They will move on to people who are less savvy.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:59 PM on January 16, 2015

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