What would you do if you got a bill for $2.65? No big deal, right? But what if you were sure you didn’t owe anything?
In July, my guy Hal got this bill from the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. He’s never been on the toll road, and the plates pictured weren’t his. When he called them to explain, he unwittingly entered a Kafkaesque labyrinth. I personally love Kafka, but would not want to be a character in any of his books, especially not the cockroach one.
The NCTA found it hard to believe he was not going to pay the bill. They outlined a dark scenario where the accumulating fines would lead to the seizure of his vehicle. Did he not own a ’91 Nissan Sentra? No, actually. He had, but he’d sold it to CarMax in 2014, just before a brief move north. Well, they said, if the monstrous pile of future fines was not paid, they would seize his “other” car, an Acura MDX.
Next stop: the DMV, where Hal learned that the Nissan was indeed registered and titled in his name, with his current address on file – a different location than where he’d lived in the glorious Nissan days. The employee whispered that it might be a case of fraud in the DMV. “You should do something about this!” she warned. “You’d be liable if the car got into an accident.” And she then told him that the car was insured through Nationwide Insurance.
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Hal called, of course. Yes, the vehicle was insured. No, he was not allowed to know by whom. For a moment I wanted a mysterious stranger to insure my car too, but then realized this was only possible if the car was not actually mine.
A call to CarMax was not returned. So much for “selling your car the easy way.”
Next up: a visit to the Carrboro Police Department. “Not our jurisdiction,” they said.
Next, a visit to the fraud inspector at NCDOT in Hillsborough. “You should do something about this!” the inspector urged, and then worked hard to make it happen.
Hal handed over lots of documents, which were scanned and sent to the DMV, and a phone call was made to them as well. Hal would need to fill out a form saying his plates were stolen, and that would resolve everything. The problem is that the current plates were never his, and so could not be stolen from him. But since there was no form that summed up Hal’s story, he went along with it. The woman he worked with at the DMV was kind and efficient, and he left believing that he was finally divorced from the Nissan.
A month later, the second bill from the NCTA arrived, with an extra $6 tacked on as a late fee. The second phone call to them was just as helpful as the first – that is, not at all. They claimed they had received no information from the DMV (“anyway, we get hundreds of emails a day”) and asked for the email address of the employee who’d helped him at the DMV, which Hal had no reason to have.
Back to the DMV. The same employee called the NCTA in Hal’s presence, and quickly refuted the idea that they had not gotten the email. “We’re on the same email system. I can see when you read it!” Then the issue was that no police report had been filed on the “stolen” plates. The DMV lady explained what Hal did not yet know – that the fraud had been traced to an employee at the Durham DMV, and that person had been reported to the supervisor. (Were they fired? Were they charged with a crime? We don’t know.) Also, the signature on the title was not even remotely Hal’s, but a sort of Q-shaped pictogram. The NCTA put the DMV on hold for 45 minutes, then transferred her to a supervisor so that she had to explain everything again, from the beginning.
Hal is assured there will be no third toll bill. So maybe it’s not important that the Attorney General’s office merely referred him to the website, with which she herself was unfamiliar. The Carrboro mayor’s office was outraged on Hal’s behalf, but their contact with the Carrboro police yielded the same result – not their jurisdiction.
Who is ultimately responsible? I say it’s the Nissan Sentra itself, defying ageism and wanting a life on the road at any cost. If you see it, be sure to admire its colorless metal body, its dashboard decimated by a would-be stereo thief, and the paisley chintz covering the plywood roof interior. Also, it’s missing the “S” in Sentra. It’s a beauty.
Amy Trojanowski dreams of one day owning a pet goat. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org