I sell. He pays. He disappears. When can I keep his money?
January 29, 2006 4:26 PM   Subscribe

Someone purchased a car from me and never picked it up. How long must I wait before I'm legally entitled to keep his money?

I posted a For Sale ad on a web site for a non-running car worth less than $1000 and someone from out of state bought it. They put a down payment on the car in early September, then paid the balance in early October. Payment cleared, by the way... this isn't one of those cashier's check stories.

Since then, I have not heard a peep from this person in spite of several attempts to contact him by email, his cell phone number and by mail to get him to pick the car up. His last email to me was on October 9, where he requested I put the title in his friend's name (warning flag) because his friend wanted to buy the car, and he didn't want his friend to have to pay the transfer fee in their state.

I sent a Priority Mail letter to him with signature confirmation, and it was returned to me as undeliverable (bad address, though it was the one he used as a return address when he sent me the money). I also sent a letter to the friend, and that was also returned to me because that person never picked it up.

I even posted a notice where I placed the ad in hopes of getting the buyer to reply. Someone who read my message contacted me and said this buyer did the same thing to them... paid in full for a car and never picked it up. Weird.

At that point, I gave up and sold the car to someone else in mid-November, but I'm still holding his money. How long must I wait before I'm legally entitled to keep that money?
posted by MegoSteve to Law & Government (26 answers total)
I think it is already yours
posted by Makebusy7 at 4:28 PM on January 29, 2006

IANAL ... but did you ever communicate to him that there would be a storage fee, or some kind of arrangement where he had only X days to keep the car at your place, or else steps would be taken?

If not, he could theoretically show up at any time and demand his car or his money.

Otherwise, I say hang on to the documents you do have, write down the entire sequence of events, and hope for the best. You seem to have made a reasonable, good-faith attempt to resolve the situation. But if he wants to make it a small claims issue, he can.
posted by frogan at 4:29 PM on January 29, 2006

I think it's considered abandoned property, but you might actually have to wait three to five years before it's yours. See here and contact your state's abandoned property office. I would imagine you could put the money into a cashable certificate of deposit or ING savings account or other interest-paying vehicle and wait out the time. In the meantime, keep a record of your attempts to return the money.
posted by acoutu at 4:33 PM on January 29, 2006

When he made the down payment in early September, we agreed he could pick up the car on September 23. He failed to show up that day, and later told me he would make arrangements to have the car towed to a storage facility. He paid me the balance due in early October, and I emailed him after he failed to show up on another weekend and told him he had to pick up the car by October 23. He never responded after that, so I sent him the letter telling him he had to remove the car by November 13. That letter was returned to me.

I have kept records of everything, including the emails and letters I sent him, and those he sent me. As a practical matter, I don't expect ever to hear from him again, since the amount of money is so small, but I just have this lingering fear he might show up with his hand out someday.
posted by MegoSteve at 4:46 PM on January 29, 2006

I suspect none of the first three replies came from a lawyer. The answer is -- whatever the statute of limitations on contracts is in your state. It is a number of years, not weeks or months. You entered into a contract, and he performed but you did not. Not that it is your fault, but he has the right to require either performance (transfer the car to him) or his money back.

I would put the money away somewhere. If the requisite number of years passes and you have not heard, then the money is yours.
posted by megatherium at 4:48 PM on January 29, 2006

Im no lawyer either, but the other party didn't perform; the guy agreed to pick up the car and did not. I can't imagine the guy can legally require MegoSteve to pay to store the car for years before he picks it up.

The guy agreed to pick up the car or otherwise make arrangements and he did not do so.
posted by Justinian at 5:08 PM on January 29, 2006

This guy did it twice? To another seller? That is just wierd. IANACT (I am not a car thief) but I gotta wonder if he is buying up VIN numbers and not actual cars. Or what. It's just wierd.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:23 PM on January 29, 2006

Check the obits.
posted by armoured-ant at 6:35 PM on January 29, 2006

It really sounds like you've done everything you can to find the new owner, but it doesn't change the fact that he's paid in full, the car is his.

It would probably be a good idea to act on any request the new owner made, for example putting it in someone else's name.

You shouldn't sell it again. It's not yours to sell.

But you also can't be expected to store it forever, if it's on your property, drag it onto the street and call your local council (or whatever your equivalent is) and report an abandoned vehicle.

In my country the law is along the lines of: if no owner can be found within a certain timeframe for an abandoned vehicle then you own it. (This is true for many other found objects, including cash. The police try to find the owner, if they can't then after 3 months they give it to the finder.)
posted by The Monkey at 6:55 PM on January 29, 2006

Assuming he shows up demanding his money someday, you'd have some period of time to make good on his demands. Presumably you could offer repayment within 30 days. How much disposable income could you summon with 30 days notice? Suppose you could come up with $500. In that case, put $500 in some sort of compatible savings account, and treat the other $500 as a windfall. If the buyer comes back -- pay him $500 immediately, and give him the other $500 after thirty days.

Technically, you should have given the car to the police as abandoned property. But then, technically, was there ever a transfer of ownership? There is a fair amount of paperwork regarding transfer of title; the title _was_ still in your name. Transfering the car to the police may have caused them eventually to have charged you for the storage of the vehicle.
posted by effugas at 7:04 PM on January 29, 2006

IANAL, but I do think abandoned property is at play and that the statute of limitations is in the link I provided above. A quick email to your state government should let you know what to do.

If you're planning to sell or have sold the car, you might want to check with the BBB or local police to see if there's some sort of fraud pattern.
posted by acoutu at 7:48 PM on January 29, 2006

BTW, as noted above, is there a chance the guy got your VIN? See VIN fraud here.
posted by acoutu at 7:51 PM on January 29, 2006

You're no longer the legal owner, so you cannot sell it. Ever. Put it on the street and let the authorities deal with it. Did this person seem at all out of it? Alzheimers? Mental illness? You might want to try calling other people in the phone book with the same last name to track down a relative to see if there is something else you should know about this guy.
posted by pwb503 at 9:09 PM on January 29, 2006

Hrm. At the worse, could you put the money into some sort of investment account, and if you ever need to give it back, still collect the interest?
posted by Atreides at 9:17 PM on January 29, 2006

You should not keep the money.

If you cashed his check, then there is no doubt you have accepted his performance of the contact. In which case, selling the car to some third party means you have STOLEN his car.

If you don't cash the check, you might have an argument that no one performed (you don't have any money in the bank, and he doesn't have a car), and the contract should just be recinded (nullified), and give the guy his money back.

I think the abandoned property issue is a red herring because you sold it again only a month or so after your last contact with him. Abandonment usually takes much longer than that.

posted by falconred at 10:11 PM on January 29, 2006

Like selfmedicating, IANACT but this is how I imagine the scam working:

1. Guy buys your junk car for $1000.

2. You put title in his name (or "friends" name).

3. Guy goes out and steals a car just like the one he bought from you, only it is running and can be sold for a lot more than $1000. He alters the VIN identifications on the stolen car to match the title on the junk car he bought from you.

4. Guy sells the stolen car with the title and accompanying paperwork from the junk car. He doesn't care at all about the junk car - he has no reason to pick it up - he just needed some clean paperwork.

You don't indicate whether you ever transferred the title to him (or rather, the friend). If he disappeared before the title transfer went through, maybe he got caught/in some other trouble and that's why you can't reach him.

But seriously, if you heard from another person that the same guy did the same thing to him - this guy has to be running a scam. Think of all the people he may have done this to that didn't see or respond to your ad.

On the plus side, I don't think he will ever show up to claim his money.
posted by peppermint22 at 10:59 PM on January 29, 2006

I gave up and sold the car to someone else

This truly surprises me. IANAL, but it seems to me if he paid for the car it's his, and you had no right to sell his property. If he is running some scam and using the VIN identification, isn't the second person you sold it to liable to get in trouble?
posted by languagehat at 6:41 AM on January 30, 2006

A quick google search shows what others might charge. If a car is towed they can charge $50 per day storage in Arlington VA. This uses up the money in 20 days. After 30 days they can auction it off. I am sure the rules depend on where you live and other things, but you are probably in the ball park. IANAL
posted by gearspring at 8:04 AM on January 30, 2006

You may want to contact the police in the state where the guy lives. If that state has a record of a car sale with your VIN, then you know that was a stolen car and the guy was running the scam described above by peppermint22. (In which case maybe you can file a report, bust up a huge ring of international car thieves, and matthowie can sidebar this with the title "Internet Superfriends Strike Again.")

It doesn't sound like you've done anything wrong - you sound willing to give him his money back if he comes for it (which seems highly unlikely). Basically it seems like you're responsible for EITHER storing his money or his car till the statute of limitations runs out. Storing the money is less of a pain than storing the car.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:24 AM on January 30, 2006

I disagree with the folks claiming "it's HIS car, you shouldn't have sold it" especially when the OP stated that the paperwork was returned to him as undeliverable. At least, that's what the OP made it sound like. It sounded like the DMV paperwork was never completed and the only thing that happened was the seller sent money and then dropped off the planet.

In that case, put it into an ING account and let it collect interest. Put another ad in the same place stating that you'd like to give the guy his money back. Keep & document everything. I would also contact the local police department and have them take a report about a possible scam. Note down everything. Cover your ass the best you can.
posted by drstein at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2006

Thanks for all the replies. Just a few points:

1. The buyer never got the VIN from me.

2. I did attempt a title transfer, but since they never showed up to complete the paperwork (registering the car in their name), I was able to have the title put back in my name.

3. I wasn't going to simply move the car and let it be towed, because I wasn't sure the third party whose name he wanted me to title the car in was even aware the car existed. I tried contacting the third party via mail, but the mail was never signed for or claimed, so it was returned to me.

I've made every reasonable effort to contact the buyer, including email, phone, and another ad in the same venue. I admit I didn't call everyone with the same last name in the state he lives in, because it would probably cost more than the car did, since his surname is very common. To top it all off, he used one return address and one surname for the down payment, and another return address in a different city with a different surname for the balance. Frankly, I'm not 100% certain of his real name or his real address because of the conflicting information he gave me, and the conflicting stories he gave to me and the other seller he pulled this with.

To suggest I "stole" the car isn't fair. Am I obligated to store something indefinitely for free after it's been paid for? Isn't there a reasonable range of time on his part to complete the transaction? It seems a little odd that some people here would expect me to hang on to the car in perpetuity.

IMO, he failed to perform per our original agreement, which was to get the car off my property on the weekend of September 23. I don't live in a part of the country where a broken down car is considered acceptable lawn art, so I got rid of it as soon as my letter to him came back to me, because at that point, my attempts at getting him to pick up the car had been going for about three months.

I'm going to hang on to the money and offer a refund in the event he shows up, but I'm not expecting he will.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2006

You might also want to just run this by a lawyer, MegoSteve. Sounds like something you could easily settle any doubts over, possibly in a few minutes with a free consult.
posted by mediareport at 11:17 AM on January 30, 2006

"This truly surprises me. IANAL, but it seems to me if he paid for the car it's his, and you had no right to sell his property."

Well, if he shows up, give him the cash back.
Get a lawyer.
posted by klangklangston at 12:10 PM on January 30, 2006

Don't get a lawyer. The car was worth less than a grand - why give all that money to a lawyer for a few minutes of talk?

See what happens. Probably nothing will.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:51 PM on January 30, 2006

Ditto ikkyu2, don't get a lawyer. Dude's not coming back...

Even if he didn't get your VIN, the whole thing is shady. He probably didn't get your certified letter because he was in jail. Who buys a broken down car from a guy out of state? Don't they have plenty of broken down cars where he lives?
posted by peppermint22 at 10:03 PM on January 30, 2006

why give all that money to a lawyer for a few minutes of talk?

There's no money involved in a free consult, ikkyu2. Most lawyers give them, in my experience.
posted by mediareport at 10:38 PM on January 30, 2006

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