Saturday, October 26, 2013

Caveat Donator; How Technology Doesn’t Work For Us

This is a tale of what perils can befall the doer of good deeds.

This may be a typical story, although I would hope it is extremely unusual.

I bring it forward only so that you will think about your presence within
the intractable web of technology.

I am a musician and a poet. I work hard to cobble together a life with my family, one that is deeply invested in my community. Everyone in my ever-widening circle of artistic colleagues is similarly struggling to serve and be blessed by art, while being responsibly invested in community.

Times have been tough, not just recently, but for a long time. We all just keep tilling our fields and hoeing our rows, painting our canvases, arching our bodies in dance, plying the singing staves, playing our instruments, because—ultimately—our art is what keeps us alive. But, keeping it all going seems to get harder and harder.

Times have been toughest for our small non-profit art organizations. The National Endowment of the Arts does not serve the small arts organization. It cannot possibly. If you thought of the human body as a mass analogous to the national budget, the amount of money the Federal Government funds the NEA might be represented by a single hair follicle, if that.

Aside from the annual fundraising efforts that have gone on for years, there have been emergency appeals, as well. Please… if you can give anything, it will help us offer our next show.

Investment. It is all about where we live, what we believe and who we are.

I have little, but I try to give, nevertheless. So, when in January a dire straights appeal came out from several groups at once, I responded in the only way I could at the time. I selected one really, really small group that I have worked with and responded, first with the word: YES. How could I help? Well, we had a car to donate; and donate it, we did.

The umbrella organization that handles car donations for non-profit groups is very well organized and efficient. You sign on the dotted lines the pick-up driver points to on his clipboard, you are given a receipt in exchange for your signed off pink slip, and the vehicle is towed away. Our donated vehicle left our driveway in the first week of February.

This week, in the mid-October of the year, we received a lien notice from a tow yard in Stockton. I had no idea what it was about, but examining it closely, I saw that it had to do with the car we had donated. Hmmm. I fished out my donation receipt, made a copy, and sent it, in the enclosed pre-printed envelope, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and went on with my life.

Two days later, my out-of-town-on-business husband received a cell call from our auto insurance company, requesting information about the accident. What accident?! My husband called me to ask about the accident that occurred, apparently, the day after he left on his business trip. I told him that on the day in question, I didn’t drive the car until that evening, when I had to drive out of town to a rehearsal. That drive was uneventful. I told him I would examine our car to see if there was damage, but I already knew there was not.

Meanwhile, a bell went off in my head. Could this be related to the lien notice we had just received in the mail, the day prior?

I called my husband back and told him about the notice, and that I suspected the accident was with the car no longer in our possession. He called the agent back and talked to him, then both the agent and my husband called to speak with me afterward.

In all these communications, there were missing bits of information. The agent had neglected to mention that the auto that had been in the accident was the one we had taken off our policy, earlier in the year. While we had all been playing phone tag, he had been able to look up in the databases he has access to and find that a release of liability form had been submitted for the vehicle. I told the agent about the lien notice and he was puzzled by it and the situation. What apparently happened is the car we donated was auctioned off to a person who did not subsequently register the vehicle. Unspoken, but probably true, the new car owner didn’t insure the car. The car owner got into an accident, and the car was towed to the tow yard, from which the lien notice had been issued. Once we wrangled with the spotty details we had before us, the insurance company took my statement and that was the end of it. We had done everything that was required, and it was obvious that we were not involved or in any way at fault. I asked the agent what I should do about the lien notice. He told me to call the tow yard and tell them that I had no interest in the car, having donated it in February, and they could sell it if they wish.

Getting off the phone with the agent, I called the tow yard. I explained to the woman who answered that the car that had been involved in the accident last week was not my car, and if they wanted to sell it they could. I told the woman I could fax her the donation receipt, so they would have it on record that we are not responsible—

I was cut off.

“That’s not what we need,” the voice was full of venom.

“Excuse me?”

“We need a DMV notice.”

“I’m not sure you understand, you see, the donation receipt clearly states—“

“Are you gonna go on, or are you gonna let ME TELL YOU?!”

Well, that did silence me. I was amazed that the entire tone of the exchange was so horrid. I thought I was calling to do the tow yard people a favor, and it turned out I was being mistaken as a bad guy.

“We need a DMV notice. If you don’t give us one, you will have to pay us for storing your wreck.”

“All the forms were turned in, all I have is a donation receipt—“

“Look, if you didn’t do what you were supposed to, it’s not my fault.”

“— that clearly states I am no longer responsible for the car. Can I have your fax number, so I can send it to you?”

“Here’s the fax number, but we’ll just throw it away. And then we’ll bill you.” She hung up.

When I launched into the tackling this misunderstanding, I thought it would take no more than an hour to clear it up, but so far I was into hour number four. My client’s work sat, waiting for my attention. But, here I was, in the middle of a nearly comical case of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

I thought about it for a minute, then decided to call the Department of Motor Vehicles and ask what I needed to do to obtain whatever form was needed to provide that would officially certify the fact that I no longer was responsible for the car.

I had no idea what DMV form they would need. The woman had been so intent on being malignantly self-righteous with me, she failed to be specific with a form name or number. Sighing, I looked up the Department of Motor Vehicles. I looked for a phone number to call for information. There is a phone number. There is no information. The phone number plays an outgoing message detailing which branch offices are closed. Searching on the website offered no clues as to what I needed to do. Finally, I resigned myself to making an appointment. Fortunately, there was an available appointment within the hour.

Nearly getting killed in an intersection by a driver who ran a red light (not only to my shock and amazement, but also the other drivers who were observing the red light), I shook off the adrenaline rush and drove for twenty minutes to the DMV office, located in the next city, where I parked my duly and legally registered, smogged and insured vehicle in the lot. I queued in the line designated for those with appointments. I waited in this line for twenty minutes. When I was finally called, the clerk asked me what I needed. I said I wasn’t quite sure, but some sort of form that was proof I had released liability on my donated car.

“Oh, we can’t do that here,” he said.

I looked around the vast office, filled with clerks and computers and forms and pencils. I saw posted signs telling the public that it was a crime to attack DMV workers. I heard people behind me muttering with thinly veiled anger.


He thrust a form with multiple pages in my hands. “We don’t handle that at branch offices. You have to fill out this form and send it into the main office with a fee.”

“Uh, okay. How long does that take?”

“Four to six weeks. Oh, and don’t separate any of those pages, or they can’t help you. NEXT!”

As I drove home, I considered the state of modern technology and compared it to my experience. There was a vast disconnect. It would have been helpful to speak in advance with a person who could have told me what form I needed and how I could obtain one. It might even have been possible to find the form online, although if I printed it out, it would have had multiple parts, as opposed to the one I was given.

Surely, in an office full of computers, all one would need to do is pay a fee and have a clerk print out a verification notice of some sort. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO DO THIS.

On my return, the pile of work from my client glared at me, but I turned my weary gaze at the form. There were multiple options on the form, but none of them seemed to match clearly with what I thought I must need, and the instructions were a bit on the inscrutable side, once you got past name, address and license or VIN number. I began to wonder if I had been given the wrong form. I finally chose the option that, naturally, had the largest fee; I would get a complete record of the car’s history for this year, a car I owned and operated for one month.

Sighing heavily, I signed the form, wrote the check, placed them in an envelope and proceeded to the nearest post office. When I got there, a hand written note taped to the glass door stated: CLOSED. BACK AT 2:25.

Pondering at the oddness of the stated re-opening time, I drove to the farther away post office and waited for twenty minutes there. Only two clerks were on duty in an office that can be worked by six clerks, and every customer had a package to mail. When I was finally called, I asked to send the item with delivery confirmation, but was told I could only send this piece as a Registered Letter, because it was not the right size to receive delivery confirmation as First Class. Not wanting to spend even more time filling out the form and getting back into line, I threw caution to the wind and let it go with just First Class postage and returned home.

When I got home, I realized it was now nearly three o’clock, and I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch.

I had spent all day on something I should not have needed to do. I had spent all day trying to be a good and responsible citizen. I had spent all day being thwarted, abused and turned away, punished for doing the right thing.

I took up the Donation Receipt. This is the printed statement, on which I had pinned my entire day’s activity:

Notice of Donor’s Liability: Your liability for your vehicle/vessel extended until the vehicle was picked up. All agents involved in the donation are not responsible for any theft, damage, vandalism, parking violations, moving violations, registration fees, late charges, impounds, storage charges, liens, etc., prior to the time the donated time was picked up. If your State Vehicle Registration Department has a form to notify them of the transfer of ownership, such as a Release of Liability, Release of Interest, or Seller’s Report of Sale, we recommend that you mail that form.

You are not responsible for your donated vehicle/vessel after the date it was picked up! It is possible you may receive a notice for ticket’s, impound, lien sale, vehicle registration or other charges relating to your donated vehicle/vessel. Send the issuing agency a copy of this receipt. If you have any questions or need assistance in resolving a problem, call 1 (800) nnn-nnnn or email help@*****.info.

I had done as directed, to know avail. However, I had not read the notice carefully enough to see that I could get help from the donation center.

I called the number on the form. A person answered the phone! I was so elated by that, I nearly burst into tears! The receptionist who answered listened to the mini-version of my tale and, said, “Oh, Sherry handles that. Here, let me connect you.”

Sherry, was on the line already, and I had to leave a message. But Sherry returned my call almost instantly, not a minute after I hung up from leaving the message. I told Sherry the longer version of my tale of my woe, and she looked up the information on the donation. In a friendly tone, she told me she would send a couple of copies of the release of liability I had signed when the car was picked up, no problem.

“Have a good one,” Sherry said, as she ended the call, “Call again, if we can do anything else.”


Obviously, this day was wasted needlessly.

This story points to many social themes that need to be addressed. People are desperate for money. Bureaucracy is entrenched, inefficient and maintained like an armed fortress, with little accountability and stingy access. People are angry. Some of the people that are angry are irresponsible, but many more are frustrated because they are trying to do the right thing. Those people who try to be responsible suffer due to the actions of both those who are irresponsible and those who are corrupt and play the system.

The theme that this experience highlighted for me was that technology, touted as the savior of the world, does not work for us when we need it to; technology can, however, be used by others to work against us, at will.

Access to Information. There is no reason why I should not be able to obtain a copy of a form I signed from the DMV the day I go in for an appointment. These forms are not stored in hardcopy, but are digitized, and should be maintained in an electronic database that can be accessed, as needed, by various agencies, and members of the public entitled to the information. I should be able to pay a fee to get copy of a form, if one is required. Four or more weeks of turn around on a minor clerical requests is simply inadequate, particularly since I know for a fact that people working at certain agencies can see proof of my claim, proof that I cannot obtain without paying a fee. My insurance company could see the trail of everything that proved I was no longer responsible for the car, but they could not provide me with a document that I could use or talk to another agency on my behalf with any authority.

Public versus Private Information. If you have not searched for your own name on Google, do it now. You will be shocked at the array of information about you that is available to anyone. You can pay a fee to the online CARFAX service get a complete history of a vehicle, including the name of former owners. Google the owner’s name, and voila, you can find out where they live, maybe even a phone number. You can call up the former owner of the car and harass that person. I’ve heard it happens! In my case, the tow company ran a CARFAX on my former car and thought to make some money off of me, since the deadbeat new owner was clearly not going to pay for towing and storing the wreck. If you can intimidate people with a lien writ and a receptionist who acts like a bulldog, maybe you can squeeze someone for some money.

Non-Enforcement of the Law. What is the point of making laws, if they will not be enforced? This might seem to be a rhetorical question, but I assure you that it is a practical one that requires real answers. It is against the law to purchase a car without registering it and purchasing accident insurance. I reiterate my refrain: WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY. If you purchase a car, you should register it and purchase insurance at the same time. All of these agencies are hand-in-glove in that they all share the same interests and information. A person should not be able to purchase a car if they do not register it and insure it, but the only way to make sure all of those things happen is to have it happen at the time of purchase, in the case of vehicles sold off the lot. A transfer system needs to be set up for person-to-person sales. Well, guess what, there is an agency currently existing that could and should handle this: it is called The Department of Motor Vehicles.

The irony of this story is that the man who bought and wrecked the car will not be answerable for the things he did and did not do. He won’t have to pay any money, he won’t be yelled at on the phone or turned away from the DMV. The worst for him is that he no longer has a car. The other party involved in the auto accident will have to foot the bill for what happened there, that party’s insurance company will have to cover the damages.

I will end by saying that no one mentioned in this story was physically injured, for which I am grateful. That doesn’t mean this story had a happy ending. After going through this, I can still say that I am glad I was able to make the donation, and I would do so again. I am hopeful that my experience was an exception to the rule, in these cases. It is my belief that we should strive to do good deeds, even if it is difficult.

It should be a goal of society to enable people to do good.

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