I’m preparing to go to the mattresses again. My battle this time? An organization who apparently has a record for withholding apartment security deposits for months on end. I know because they’re currently holding onto $6K of my money and have been since last year.
I’m giving them til the end of the week before I go to town because…well I don’t take these fights lightly. And I don’t largely because I go SO all in on them. I go after the company, individuals, internet SEO, whatever it takes. If you screw me over, and I’m in the right, I will do as much legally as I can imagine. And I’ve got the imagination - and morality - of a successful reality TV producer.
There was the time I went to the VW president’s office to deal with my Audi ignition coils. Repeatedly. Or the tens of thousands in legal fees that I ended up costing the company that sued me for a yelp review because they never thought anyone would fight it. Like the movie line goes, “I am a man with a particular set of skills,” but said skills turn me into an incredibly focused maniac when I go there. And for a while afterwards. I kinda wondered why. So I went looking for the thing that kinda started it all - the car story.
Here for your enjoyment is the original story (lightly edited, man I loved run on sentences) that got me into the art of creative complaining. I wrote about the time my beloved Dodge Swinger was hit by a drunk driver in Koreatown and how it eventually brought me toe to toe with the AIG Insurance company and a guy named Mike Osborne. It’s a little dated in some ways (2006) but it reminds me of just how I get when I decide to start swinging back.
My beloved car that is older than I am. The automotive reason that several women in my life have broken up with me. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. It started in November of 2005, back when I was living in Koreatown. The car was parked on the street, as usual. When I came down to go to work I noticed something odd on the windshield: a card from a policeman telling me to call a number to find out about an accident my car had been in. I was confused.
Soon I was less confused.
I got out and looked around. Sure enough there was my back end touching the ground. The bumper was dented, the rear valance was torn up, the springs were listing to one side like a drunk leaning on a fence to hurl. Someone had hit my car and they had pushed it close to 50 feet down the street. I kept searching. All around were bits of plastic and glass and parts that said Infinity.
I followed the trail of parts backwards.
There was a red chevy with its side caved in. That crimson cannon fodder that had slowed the Infinity - the aggressor in this situation - before it went one on one with my rear chrome. Which I’m guessing is where it all came to an end. Then I noticed the license plate holder: “Hertz rental.” I remember thinking that I hoped that poor unlucky bastard had the extended insurance.
Because I knew I didn’t.
Heres the thing: I only have liability insurance on my car. Why? For one thing, no car Ive ever owned until the Swinger has really been worth much more than simple liability insurance. Not the Chevy Celebrity with half the front bumper gone. Not the Buick Lesabre with the iffy brakes. And not the Saturn with an engine that squealed like a mob informant.
Now, admittedly, I have spent more money on the Swinger than every single woman I have ever known dirty or otherwise put together. But its still got a blue book value of a little less than my laptop. And, sadly, the restoration of the Swinger was only at about 80 percent complete, even though I drove it everyday. The plan was, when it was fully restored, I WOULD get the full coverage. On that halcyon day I’d park it somewhere nice and finally clean out those ashtrays full of grit from the Nixon years.
But some moron with an Infinity and a poor sense of braking had other intentions.
I headed upstairs to make some calls, tell my insurance what had happened (for all the good that it would do) and get to the bottom of this situation. As I did, the owner of the pile of red metal that used to be a Hertz, came out to discover his situation. I heard him moaning about not buying the supplemental coverage.
Apparently this was going to be a tragedy the whole way around.
I got hold of the police by calling the number on the back of the card. They informed me that they’d arrested my vehicular assaulter, and they’d charged them with DUI and hit and run. Apart from the two cars on MY block he hit, he also apparently brought his car to a full and complete stop by hitting a third one.
It was at this point that cops told me they’d love to tell me more about the guy who did it but that I’d have to request a police report. Which, in the city of Los Angeles, would take up to three months. But in the meantime MY insurance would get on top of the damage. I told the cop that I only had liability. He told me that I’d need to get the info on the guy who hit me. I asked HOW I would be able to do this without that police report. The officer said he’d think about it.
This was not a reassuring call.
Undaunted I got very very into police form processes. By digging into the specifics of the paperwork process and berating officers at the local and detective level for two weeks straight, one of them…let slip the number of a form. It was one of those relevant numbered forms that, if asked for by name, completely renders your police stonewallers helpful. I did it. There was a pause. And then open sesame. The cops gave me the license plate number, the insurance company AND the name: Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim was a college student who got a little over served and tried driving back to the westside. He made it to the east side of all three cars he hit. Ultimately a drunken Korean college student…well it wasn’t surprising. We were in Koreatown where underage kids drank soju like it was a wondertonic and right on red doesn’t even involve a slow down. Its a wonder I hadn’t been run down in a crosswalk over the last three years living here.
I called Kimmy’s insurance company: AIG. Apparently Mr Kim, a whole two weeks after the crash and his imprisonment, hadn’t gotten around to calling his own company and bringing them up to speed. So I relayed the details. The bulletpoints? Their client had been caught, they’d booked him on hit and run AND a DUI and I had some damages they would need to pay. I expected it all should have been simple at that point. Especially with, you know, the CRIMINAL charges involved.
The handler was very attentive. They took down my details and said someone would get RIGHT on it. And to their credit, someone did. A mid-40’s black guy named Elston. He said they were looking into the situation but after determining that I didn’t have any competing insurance company to fight over damages with, Elston told me it was likely this was going to take a while.
Weeks rolled by. Weeks of me on the bus from K-town to Santa Monica with the tired, yearning masses of the red line. It was a complete cross-section of our city. And what I learned is, our city has some issues. There were crazy women who picked fights with me, wheelchair guys who took delight in the city waiting on them and the smelly homeless folks who determined that their cause in life was to drag around the single rankest thing they could find and use it as either a necklace or a convenient footrest.
Meanwhile I called, I inquired, I persisted. And I was always unfailingly polite. I even asked to speak to a supervisor. Which Elston said he’d have to get back to me on. I think maybe Elston knew no good would come out of talking to his boss and was trying to fix things without him.
But unfortunately, it got there anyway. Elston, my assigned adjuster, had gone on vacation. During his absence I was directed to call his supervisor. His name? Mike Osborne. Let me be clear: Elston had been kind but ineffective. Mike? Mike could not have cared less but he was happy to tell me that.
Mike, bluntly, told me that AIG had come to a conclusion. You see, he said, Kimmy the drunk Korean hit three guys in one night. Because of that, they were going to use a different kind of math on my case. Their client had a 10,000 dollar per incident limit on coverage that they were going to treat all three cars he’d wrecked as ONE incident. And ALL of it would be covered under a $10,000 dollar PER INCIDENT cap.
Moreover since they needed all victims to sign off on this little crazy math, not only would they NOT pay me very much but they would ALSO not pay me anytime soon. At that point, to just rub it in, Mike Osborne even said his client hadn’t been convicted yet. He even threw in a “who knows, maybe he just fell asleep at the wheel” even as he knew the facts were otherwise. Mike followed up on that by instructing me that these cases sometimes take years to resolve. But the best was coming. That’s when Mike said that thing.
“Riley.” Mike Osborne said, “since you don’t have collision insurance you just better be prepared to be screwed in this matter.”
He shouldn’t have said it. That was really his mistake. Without saying it I would have probably measured my efforts. I would have done some things. But I probably wouldn’t have done EVERYTHING. Because that’s when I got LIVID. The incident had already cost me hours of work, tremendous aggravation and seats next to the smelliest citizens in LA. And he was bluntly telling me that I was going to be screwed? I responded with what I thought was a pretty controlled statement.
“Mr. Osborne,” I said, “I am NOT prepared to be screwed. And if you don’t do whats right I will probably have to write a few letters about this incident.”
He chuckled even before I finished talking.
“Sure,” Mike Osborne said. “Go ahead and write whomever you want.”
At that point? It was ON.
Know this: I am spiteful. I am dedicated. I am creative. And I am a damn good writer. It was time to write some letters. So I started easy. I wrote the people you’d think of in this kind of thing. All of them. I wrote my assemblyman, my city council person, my county supervisor, the consumer affairs department, my congressman, my senator, the governors office and the insurance commissioners office of California. But then I thought about who else I could write. I went to the California State website. There are over 1200 state agencies alone in California. All just waiting for a letter from ME.
This is where that spite and dedication comes in handy but the creativity is essential. Here’s how I did it. If they had anything to do with insurance, I said “I’ve been wronged, do something about my case.” And then I basically gave them the boilerplate on what happened.
Now if they were ONLY involved in laws and regulations in a general way (state legislators, city assembly people, regulatory groups) I said, “There oughta be a law to protect people who haven’t done anything wrong. Like with MY case.” Then again the boilerplate.
Now if they had NOTHING to do with insurance or regulations (the California Farm Bureau, Department of Veterans Affairs, California Fire) I said, “As a public agency, I strongly encourage you look at the details of my case before you buy any insurance from AIG.” Then the boilerplate of my story. I know this one seems like a reach but it really isn’t that much of a stretch. Given that AIG is one of the biggest insurers in the world, chances are some of them must use them or consider using them. Or at least that’s a plausible reason to write.
But however I started every letter, the end was the same. At the end of every plea I sent out, I wrote the same thing: “If you’d like more information feel free to call Mike Osborne at…” And then I gave em his phone number.
I think that first day I sent out like 200 letters. And I sent out about 50 a day after that. It wasn’t that hard. Find an agency, pick which one of my three pitches I was using, tweak the front and hit send. And then repeat.
The following week, on a Monday, I called Mike Osborne to check in with my repair estimates. Ostensibly I phoned him up to see if there’d been any progress. But really I wanted to see if maybe any of this was working. The second he started talking I got the impression it was. Because Mike Osborne’s dismissive tone was little different. I was hearing an edge of…pissed.
Mike answered curtly to every question I asked. I asked a lot of questions. The last one was for the claims fax number so I could send him my latest paperwork on repairs with updated estimates from my mechanic. Then as an aside, before I hung up, I asked if I should mail him more letters on the case that I’d just gotten from the police on their client Mr. Kim.
“No,” Mike Osborne said, “I don’t think you need to send any more letters Mr. Robbins.”
And THAT made me think I should send just a few more. But I felt like I should take it beyond the random emails he was getting from civil service people. I needed to make it more personal. I researched AIG online. One of the first things that came up was the publicly listed board of directors and all the members of senior management. With mailing addresses. Ah publicly traded companies. It’s all out there. So I got 42 stamps and some decent quality paper. I would send one letter to every member of the board of directors, every SVP and everyone in the upper management.
Let me just say that THIS was some of my best work. It wasn’t angry or whining. This was the letter that said “you know what you’ve done, what your employees have done in your name, has made me lose faith not only in AIG but in the insurance industry as a whole.” I know. It sounds corny here. But they don’t know me. Maybe I’m a guy who really believes in the insurance industry as a whole. And these are COMPANY men. One of them had to believe in the good name of this insurance giant.
And one did.
A week later I get a call from the VP of international affairs. A secretary hopped on and said “please hold for a call from AIG Vietnam.” And moments later I was talking to a senior management guy calling me from the new AIG office in Ho Chi Minh city. I got the impression this guy wasn’t necessarily in direct communication with all his exec brethren who got the same letters. He thought this was from me to him and he was going to DO something. International VP he’s sorry he’s been out of the loop but promises me, “by tomorrow morning, someone will be looking into my case.”
The next day I get a call from the Director of West Coast operations. He starts well enough. He’s SOOOOO SORRY that this all happened. And there must have been a “communications breakdown.” He’s heartfelt in his appreciation for what I’ve been through and he wants to convey it. He says he’s going to get me his top specialist.
Then 10 minutes later that said specialist calls. All the same heartfelt song and dance…but with a difference. Because after he gives it he starts hemming and hawing and saying, “it really is a judgment call to call it one incident or separate incidents.” After all this, after going all the way to Asia then to the head of West Coast Operations then to a new guy only to get the same song and dance as Mike Osborne?
I cut him off.
I say “you know who doesn’t see it that way? The California insurance commisioner’s office. Neither does my city councilman. Neither does my county supervisor. All of whom have written me to tell me so.” And all that was true. When I sent off these letters I kept a list of everyone who said they’d look into it, everyone who said I was in the right but you should call THIS agency and the ones who said “you know we only license farm vehicles right?” So I read off anyone who was pro-Me. It was a long and pretty randomly official list. As I got to the end of it I came up with the capper.
“And tomorrow morning I’m going to send out promotional pitch packets with my case details to every California consumer reporter - some of whom I’ve already called - to say that something must be done about these insurance companies and their unethical ways. Along with copies of letters from everyone who says you’re in the wrong.” I paused. Then I said, “Oh wait, that’s one of the reporters on the other line. I gotta go.”
And I hung up on him. That consumer packet was actually a pretty good idea. If this didn’t work I thought “I should probably do that.”
It was unnecessary. The specialist called me back five minutes later. He rushed right into it without even a hello.
“We’re going to go ahead and consider it separate incidents and cut you a check today,” he said. “And given that your radio might have been damaged in the crash we’re also giving you a certificate for 500 dollars to Circuit City to have it replaced.”
I won’t soft sell it: this was sweet. It took about 400 emails, 42 stamped letters and a lot of phone calls but it was a win. And unqualified one. I asked for $2000 for repairs. I got $2500. As well as enough on the Circuit City gift card to upgrade the subwoofer and put in a new Sirius satellite radio. It was all there. Victory, success, TRIUMPH!
But there was a little more.
After I got my check I found out that there was a salvage title form I’d need to send in to AIG. A few months later I got the form and called up to see where to send it. I called Mike Osborne’s number. From the amount of letters I ended it with, it was one call I knew by heart at this point. He didn’t answer. Elston did. The nice but ineffective first claims adjuster. He laughed when he heard my name because he hears it. A lot.
“You know we still get calls about you,” mused Elston.
Six months after AIG blinked there is still some kind of local, county or state agency that will call on my behalf to look into my case. Why? Well I think it’s because it was a good case. Little guy, big company, obviously being screwed by a bad system. For any agency or elected official that gets this thing, they’re thinking “hey this is an easy win on the board AND it sounds great.” Apparently Elston was the one who was dealing with it. Each one requiring a note, email or phonecall to tell them that AIG had done the right thing and settled the case. He didn’t seem to mind. Especially given the fact that he answered Mike Osborne’s line.
“So what happened to Mike Osborne?” I asked.
You could almost hear Elston shaking his head on the other side of the phone.
“Yeaaaah,” said Elston. “He’s not working in this department anymore.”
Was he working in any department? Or for AIG? Or was he just walking around muttering my name in a park somewhere? I didn’t need to know. This was enough. I was wronged. I fought back with a disproportionate response. I won. As for Mike, if you’re out there, just one last piece of advice. Every company has screw ups. Mistakes. Miscommunications. When you resolve them, just treat your customers fairly and equitably. Then things go well - both for you and the company. And if not?
Well you better be prepared to be screwed in this matter.
Doors of Finland. One in a surprisingly robust series.
So this is a photoshop I made that apparently got over 2K shares before FB took it down. Still, I’ve seen it once or twice used in twitter convos as a meme response. And really, that’s the win on the board isn’t it? Still, I’d love to figure out how to get a T-shirt of this thing up for sale somewhere to get a piece of it. But in the meantime, art will have to do.