Vendor beware
November 20, 2018 11:22 AM   Subscribe

A local merchant had been selling my art and gifts in her shop on commission. Then she suddenly moved and downsized without telling me. I've been having a really hard time getting my merch back, and now she's blocked my number. How should I proceed to get my things back or be compensated for them?

"Mary" is a longtime friendly acquaintance in my small town, but we've never been close. She was very encouraging when she started selling my paintings and gifts in the gallery/shop she had attached to her bodywork studio.

She hadn't answered a couple texts so I went by the shop early this fall and was surprised to see a sign that it had moved "one block south." There was no exact address given, and it took me a while to learn she'd moved into an unmarked office suite over another business. I sent her a couple friendly texts and heard nothing back.

I went by the new location and she was friendly and sort of evasive about whether or not she'd be selling anything there, but she said to let her know if I wanted my unsold things back. She claimed I hadn't sold anything since she last paid, which I knew wasn't true because I had had a little unclaimed money. I asked her to get my things ready and she said okay, but I didn't hear from her and she didn't answer when I texted her to check up on getting everything together.

After a month and a lot of unkept promises, I still had nothing back. I wrote her and was direct but nice and said I hoped she was okay but I did need to know what was up and reminded her it had been a month. She was super casual in her reply and said she'd leave a stack for me in her new office and would look up what I was owed.

When I brought my things home, I saw that a few things were damaged, no money was there, and a number of things were missing, including four paintings. (The total value of those is around $220.) I texted her to let her know and again, she was friendly and casual. I sent her pictures of the missing ones and she said she'd look in her old place that day. A week has gone by now. I texted her to see if she'd found any and kept getting message errors. So I tried calling and got a message that she had "restricted" my number.

So, what do I do now? I'm probably more mad about the violation of trust than anything else. But I also want my stuff back, or I want her to compensate me if she doesn't have it, either because it sold or because she lost/destroyed it.

She hasn't blocked me on Facebook, and I assume I can still email her through the shop. I think she only sees people by appointment there, and I'm iffy about going there too. Especially because writing her would provide evidence of contact. She escalated the situation by blocking me, and I'm not sure what to do. When is it time for small claims, if ever? What else can I try first?
posted by mermaidcafe to Work & Money (21 answers total)
I guess we all have our own threshold for what amount of money is worth going to small claims court for; it's up to you whether $220 passes yours or not. Local merchant is certainly signaling that you won't be getting your stuff or money back via simpler means.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:29 AM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Figure out what in time & money it will cost you to go to small claims. What's the likely hood you'd get paid even if you won in court?

My guess is you'll be out more money in the end. I'd call the $220 a loss and not spend the small claims money to make it a $350 loss.
posted by TheAdamist at 11:30 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nolo Press suggests that just sending a demand letter often resolves the situation without small claims court.

More info and sample demand letter here:
posted by elphaba at 11:40 AM on November 20, 2018 [13 favorites]

You’re doing everything right on the business front and her behavior is unprofessional.

But it also makes me wonder what kind of personal crises and hardship she’s experiencing that are resulting in these changes. It’s possible her life is in chaos and you’re a low priority, and she’s blocked your number to protect herself from overwhelming stress and guilt while other things are going on.

You are absolutely due timely compensation for the missing and damaged paintings. But, if you can afford to, leave space for grace in your negotiations.
posted by itesser at 11:58 AM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Please be aware that small claims court cannot force her to pay you. I know two people who won judgments in small claims course, but in both cases, the person just never paid, and there was nothing they could do about it.

So you need to decide if it's worth it, knowing that you may ultimately gain nothing from it.

(I once sat down in a university office and told them I would not move until the people there brought me the documents I'd been getting a runaround on for weeks. That worked.)
posted by FencingGal at 11:58 AM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

I think she probably does not have your money or paintings anymore, she wanted to make you as whole as she could, but is now embarrassed and nervous because you want something she doesn’t have the capacity to give you. I would not use small claims court, personally.
posted by corb at 12:22 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

and she’s blocked your number to protect herself from overwhelming stress and guilt while other things are going on.
Regardless of stress this is a bad approach. If she's in dire straits and wants space to sort things out, doing this still gives the impression of chicanery and can (and should!) provoke more serious collection attempts that will doubtless raise her stress level further than simply owning up about whatever is going on.

The block here is not "to protect herself from stress." The block is clearly an attempt to evade responsibility. That's not okay.
posted by uberchet at 12:25 PM on November 20, 2018 [36 favorites]

There's not much more you can do asides from using the linked to letter. I wouldn't do small claims court, I would probably do that and then send her a letter expressing your hurt and disappointment if she doesn't do anything constructive.

You could suggest a payment plan, or some sort of in kind trade but you probably don't want her giving you a massage or whatever right?

I'm sorry this happened, I had an acquaintance rip me off for a similar amount years ago, it still upsets me because a) I thought she liked me and b) she never took responsibility or provided an explanation for what happened. She did have bigger issues going on but it still soured me against her considerably.
posted by lafemma at 12:32 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

WTF. This is so messed up, I'm sorry this happened to you. The demand letter posted above looks good. Make sure you have saved/screenshotted all of her communications to you.

If she doesn't respond, I would also consider sending a copy of the letter to any professional associations/listings that she is part of. If she did this to you, she could do it to others, and adding this to her online footprint might prevent her from causing more harm in the future.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 12:53 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I was doing small business accounting I had a number of clients who I know pulled this kind of thing with their customers and business partners when they basically folded after we'd been telling them for years that they couldn't make ends meet and they needed to look for a day job. Usually this sort of behavior doesn't crop up until people are already to the stage of overdrawn accounts and collection letters on their own, so they are taking money owed to party A and using it to pay party B--for example, failing to pay someone they don't need to do business with again immediately in order to keep the phone or the lights on and telling themselves that when business picks up they'll still get to paying party A. I would bet at least a couple bucks that the missing paintings have been sold, but that doesn't mean she still has the cash to give you.

This is not to say you shouldn't pursue things if you have spare time and potentially a small amount more money to throw at it just to feel vindicated. But, in a lot of cases it'll make far more sense to invest your time and energy in your own business instead of trying to squeeze money out of a person who isn't making any. In no way saying this is right or acceptable, it's just unfortunately common and usually an unprofitable line to pursue very far for amounts this size. Demand letter, probably sensible. More than that--really weigh if your energy is better spent elsewhere.
posted by Sequence at 1:16 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

she’s blocked your number to protect herself from overwhelming stress and guilt while other things are going on.

For heaven's sake, this is not some kind of self-care technique. This is a thief trying to avoid responsibility for her theft. You don't get to opt out of stress and guilt for self-protection when you're a business-owner holding onto someone else's property and/or money. You brought it on yourself by being a thief.

you want something she doesn’t have the capacity to give you

Let's be clear on the precise scenario here. OP appears to have left the goods on consignment, meaning that the seller didn't own the goods. There are only two likely reasons the seller doesn't have the capacity to give her the money or property back. Possibly there were losses when she moved locations--in which case she should have had insurance, and where did that payout go? Much more likely is that she simply stole the money she received for the goods and used it for the business. So if she doesn't have the capacity to make OP whole, it's not like not being able to pay the rent on the store or even to pay for goods you bought on credit because you just didn't bring in enough revenue, though you tried your best. She had the money and she applied it to her own needs instead of giving it to the person who was entitled to it, on whose behalf she made the sales.

But, yeah, it's highly questionable that $220 is worth small claims court for you, OP. Send the letter if you want, though I doubt it'll get a response. Trash her reputation (with scrupulous honesty!) online so she can't pull this crap on anyone else, and get on with your life.
posted by praemunire at 1:56 PM on November 20, 2018 [31 favorites]

I'm almost certain that Sequence has the right read on this. Your acquaintence's business has been doing poorly (or she had a personal crisis of some kind that wiped her out) she robbed Peter to pay Paul, and now both your paintings and the money she got from them are gone. Probably forever, as once businesses get to that stage of desperation they rarely recover. You are probably not the only person trying to get money from her that she doesn't have. Very likely, the other people involved want the money for things like rent, utility bills, and loan payments rather than just sold merchandise.

Blocking you probably was a stress reduction measure, albeit a panicky and irresponsible one. That doesn't excuse it, but that's probably what it was—a short-sighted bit of emotional and financial triage. It probably didn't work, because she's probably still digging deeper and deeper into her hole.

It sucks, but you probably aren't going to get either the paintings or the money back because I very much doubt she has either. You can try the demand letter, but you can't make someone give you something if they just plain don't have it.

I'n sorry, but I feel like your chances of being made whole here are slim. Try the demand letter, but when that doesn't work it's probably time to let it go. Forgive them, drop them from your life, and move on.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:39 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

A few other things to consider:

In your demand letter you could offer to work out a reasonable payment plan, that might get you some money back.

There's always Yelp, Angie's List, Google Reviews. You've indicated that her business has relocated. I think it's reasonable to outline what has happened to you as a warning to others. It might also garner a response.
posted by brookeb at 4:12 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Very likely, the other people involved want the money for things like rent, utility bills, and loan payments rather than just sold merchandise.

*I* want the money for rent, utility bills, and loan payments. That's why I sell my art.
posted by mermaidcafe at 5:16 PM on November 20, 2018 [38 favorites]

I am not a lawyer.

Demand Letter. Put a bit of The Fear into her, and then be prepared to walk away from the loss. If you have proof of the debt, I suppose you could try to sell the debt to a collector -- you'll get pennies on the dollar at best, but they'll make her suffer for every cent she owes (I'm a vindictive motherfucker, keep that in mind when weighing the options I mention).

You may additionally want to prepare a Proof of Claim form, should she actually file for bankruptcy. You will also probably get nothing, but even so... Note, if she files for bankruptcy you'll need to cease all contact lest you get yourself sued (iirc).
posted by aramaic at 5:55 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

The main benefit of a successful small claims suit is to get the debt recorded. A fair number of people will pay up at that point to get it off their credit histories (though this is less likely if she's about to declare bankruptcy anyway). If she doesn't, you can sell the debt to a collector for pennies on a dollar and the satisfaction of knowing that it won't be as easy to block a collection agency's telephone number.

The main cost of a small claims suit is your time. Time to learn the procedure, time to prepare your case, time to watch other people's cases a day or two to learn what not to do, then time to appear for your case. That time will far outweigh the (usually nominal) filing fee.

However, if you put in the time, it's very likely you will win. A shocking number of cases are won when the defendant doesn't bother to show up. A shocking number of cases are lost when, instead of calmly and clearly answering the judge's questions, the plaintiff chooses to rant about the injustice of it all. If you are present and even halfway organized and reasonable, you have a very good chance.

Disclaimer: I have a somewhat inflexible world view when it comes to businesses reneging their debts. You may choose to focus more on the human being behind the corporation. That is a perfectly fine and probably more virtuous decision.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:20 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am having a little bit of a hard time with the concern for the business owner who "may be having personal difficulties." We all have personal difficulties but when we're short on cash we don't just go to an art fair and mug an artist to make our nut.

I'm sure the answer is "depends on the jurisdiction," but if you have a judgement against a business and they won't pay, can you have the sheriff seize their property and auction it to pay the judgement? Or is that beyond the scope of small claims court? Even if I didn't get all my money back, the idea of her losing her office equipment or yoga mats or whatever (which I would so bid on at the auction) would warm the cockles of my shiveled heart. It would be sort of burning a bridge, but it sounds like a shitty bridge anyway.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:42 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think brookeb has the best suggestion. Don't go to her with a demand letter, but go to her with a little compassion. "Not sure what is going on here, but times are tough for everybody, and I'm sure your business is struggling just like mine is. If there is some issue with you being able to return the paintings, perhaps there is some mutually acceptable solution that we could work out that isn't too onerous for you, but also let's be get something of value out of those missing paintings. Can we meet for a coffee/beer?" Maybe there is a barter arrangement you can come to, maybe payment over time, maybe just future considerations. It seems unlikely that a demand letter will get you anything, but maybe a kinder approach will get you something.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:47 AM on November 21, 2018

Response by poster: Don't go to her with a demand letter, but go to her with a little compassion. "Not sure what is going on here, but times are tough for everybody, and I'm sure your business is struggling just like mine is."

Conversations are only for people who will talk to you. Not for people who block you.

I've tried understanding conversations. The last time was in a long message I sent her nearly a month ago. I assured her it was nothing personal and I hoped was okay and I'm sure the move was overwhelming but that for my own accounting and peace of mind, I'd need to know if I wasn't going to get my things back. She was super friendly and casual and didn't acknowledge all the times she'd been evasive or rescheduled me.

A little compassion is great. But I've already given a lot.
posted by mermaidcafe at 11:12 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I say you try one last effort through facebook/email with one of the compassionate (but firm) responses above. Even though it sucks to be nice to someone who stole your stuff, I think it's the more likely way she'll respond to you. Make it clear that while you feel bad for anything that's going on, you also are struggling (whether true or not) and could really use that money, so can we work out a payment plan?

If she doesn't respond, follow up in a week with "Hello! Just wondering if you saw my last message. If I don't hear from you in the next week, I am going to leave honest reviews on Yelp/Google etc about how I was treated and warning others to stay away."

If she still refuses to reply, back up your threats. Leave detailed, 1 star reviews describing what happened. Post on the facebook page weekly saying this person stole your art. Be visible and annoying. Make it clear that you will not go away quietly. There is still no guarantee she will pay you, but you should do everything you can to help other merchants avoid dealing with a thief.

To those who think this might be too far: regardless of someone's personal situation, short of life/death situations they should NEVER steal from other individuals. As others have rightly detailed above, this wasn't bad business decisions or using credit poorly; she had physical goods on consignment that disappeared. She has had opportunities to make things right. I feel for anyone who is going through a tough time, but that does not give you the right to block people who are trying to follow up on a debt.

OP I wish you luck. Even if she doesn't pay up, you may get some small satisfaction from publicly shaming her business. Sorry to some if that sounds harsh to some, but it's not just being petty; its helping to avoid other honest artists from dealing with her in the future. If I was an artist looking to sell my goods, I would be thankful to see someone warning me to stay away from someone like this.
posted by andruwjones26 at 6:24 AM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I eventually found resolution. She ignored the demand letter and a lawyer friend tried to reach her and then a mutual friend talk s to her. Finally a Yelp review smoked her out. We met and had a pleasant conversation and I pretended to believe it he dozens of lies because I was getting paid finally. She paid me and I removed the Yelp review. I don’t see why that had to drag on for months, but at least we had an amicable meeting. Thank you all for your help.
posted by mermaidcafe at 12:36 PM on December 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

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