Steve Dolling - Rip-Off Artist, Con Man, Liar, and Thief: The Hazards of Trucking A Boat on the Internet
26 October 2010
Steve / Dark & Stormy
I received an email last week. It was from a reputation repair company, the self-proclaimed leader in the reputation repair industry. A damaging report had been posted on a consumer rip-off website. My good name was in imminent peril. For a small fee, they would be able to work their magic and have the report moved down in the Google search engine rankings.
Somehow the email had slipped through the spam filter and made its way into my main inbox. It didn't contain any of the usual keywords like "enlargement" or "Viagra" so I assumed that it was a fresh approach and moved it manually to the spam box hoping Google would do a better job of catching the next one.
A couple of hours later, my wife came into my office and said, "You have to see this." Sure enough, there it was, naked before Google and the rest of the internet, a posting on a website identifying me as a "Con Man", "Thief", "Liar", and "Rip-Off Artist." "Deadbeat customer" was added as a footnote. The posting was attributed simply to Rich - a semi-clever way of avoiding association of his last name or company with the damaging words or the website itself.
The post accuses me of using deceptive practices to avoid paying the bill for the shipment of my boat and then fleeing the country.
I have had a dispute with the trucking company for some time. My last interaction was indirectly through a collection agency many weeks ago. They were looking for $550. We had a very cordial conversation which I recorded, with their permission, after explaining that I believed I was a victim of extortion, and wanted to make sure that I had record of all interactions. I shared with them a detailed briefing note outlining why I believe the company actually owes me $2,996.17. They promised to get back to me.
I never heard from them again. Strange for a collection agency.
Here I am with this cybersmear lingering. I call the trucking company. No answer. I send an email, surely they are joking? No. They confirm that this is in fact how they would like to do business. I have truly pissed them off. They are happy to go to war on the internet.
Interesting. I relished the notion. Simply by sharing the facts and their name together on a few dozen boating bulletin boards, I can cause far more harm to them than they can to me. After all, I'm not selling my brand on the internet.
But it's a little like winning a nuclear war. I will become a ranting lunatic while their business suffers.
I checked out the consumer rip-off website. There is no mechanism to "un-post" even on mutual agreement of the parties. In fact, even after successfully suing a company for defamation, the posting stays on the website.
Rebuttals are welcomed. I can make a note about a successful lawsuit. I can write a response telling my side of the story. The company could apologize. But the posting cannot be removed.
The website's "Thinking of Suing Us" tab goes through a very detailed explanation citing the First Amendment, company policy, and a bucket load of legal precedents. I believe them. I don't have an issue with the website. The content creator is the problem.
I plug in a rebuttal. 9 reasoned pages. The same information I sent to the Better Business Bureau. It has all dates, the contract amounts, the deposit, the timeline, the emails, the promises, the failures, the lies, and the threats. The glorious vindication is all spelled out right there. All under the title of "Steve Dolling Con Man, Thief, Liar, Rip-Off Artist"
I Google myself. Con Man, Rip-Off Artist moves up higher in the search engine rankings after I post the rebuttal.
Little automated internet creatures spread the posting across multiple websites. No human intervention required. These sites aren't even really intended for humans to read. They are just there to fool Google and influence search engine rankings. There is a whole industry dedicated to the destruction and restoration of reputations. It's all about those first 20 Google hits next to your name. Who knew? Interesting business model. Though I'm not willing to become a paying participant.
So what to do? A good friend of mine is boat broker. Weeks ago, he suggested that I needed to take my story to the boating press. Unsavoury practices in the boat trucking industry are way more common than anybody knows about. There are some really good companies out there, but there are lots of others who skirt around the edges of legality.
A common business model is to tell the customer whatever they would like to hear to get their deposit in and booking made. Once they get to that stage, the trick is to present a reason why the boat can't be picked up on the scheduled date and offer a more costly alternative that will meet the schedule. It sounds semi-legitimate. If the customer balks they find out in the fine print that their deposit is not refundable once a truck has been "dispatched". The contract is one of "convenience" so the pickup date really has no contractual teeth. They can take a month to find a truck. So you choose to pay up and get your boat delivered, or sit and wait. The differential amount is something a little less than your deposit, so it's hard to walk away.
This price nudging is exactly what happened to me. It's not violent crime, but it's hardly administrative error. I didn't feel it was worth the time to follow up and go to the media. Too big of an emotional toll. Better to move on with life and just be satisfied that my filing with the Better Business Bureau is at least one little step toward the public good.
But it's not quite the whole story. My trucking company took it a couple of steps further. They didn't insure the boat as promised. And, after the boat was picked up, they demanded $3,500 in extra deposit above what is specified in the contract and threatened to hold my boat in Mexico if I didn't pay. All in writing. I was convinced I was either dealing with criminals or a company so close to the edge of bankruptcy that they didn't have the cash for continued operations. I decided not to submit to extortion give them no further money until the boat arrived. They backed down and after I finally agreed to send a bank draft to the boatyard where the boat was being delivered.
Finally on the day the boat should be delivered, we are told I was told to bring a bank draft for another $550 for border delays and processing fees. And I better not be late or they will charge me $75 an hour for delays. They cannot however tell me when the boat will be at the yard which is a few hours from my house. We scurry to the bank and drive to the boatyard. Anything to get the boat back.
We make it to the boatyard before they close. No sign of the truck. We wait for hours. Nothing. No answer from the trucking company.
Finally, we go for a drive down the highway. We find our boat loaded on a broken down truck at the side of the road. We meet Eddie, a thoroughly exhausted truck driver who has been paid the grand total of $500 to drive day and night for 3 days to get the boat delivered. He hasn't eaten for 12 hours. He is siphoning diesel from one tank to another trying to get the truck going as darkness falls. We lend him a flashlight. We go buy him diesel, delivered in our own jugs. We bring him a hamburger and fries at midnight. The diesel doesn't help. He asks if we can find a truck repair service for him. He is going to try and sleep. We search the internet at the little hotel where we rented a room, and I drop a list of truck repair companies off to Eddie's truck while he sleeps.
Mid-morning, we get a phone call to come to the boatyard, Eddie has arrived! Our boat is there. We bring coffee and donuts. Eddie is so happy that this miserable delivery is over. I let him know that the bank drafts are in the office. He unstraps the boat and the boatyard crane lifts our boat off.
Eddie forgot the golden rule. You have to get the money before you unload the boat. Whoops.
So I go to the office and I have in my hands $8067 in bank drafts in the trucking company's name. Leverage had shifted rather significantly.
I had choices to make. There were three drafts. The first was the amount owing on the original contract. The second was the amount to cover the higher price. The third was the amount for the additional fees.
Eddie had explained that the boarder delays had nothing to do with us and we shouldn't pay for those. I knew the processing fee was a result of the trucking company's omissions. So I wasn't prepared to give them extra money that they had no entitlement to. I had my boat back now. No gun to my head. If I had known then what I know now about their business practices, I would have only given them funds to cover the originally negotiated contract price.
Instead, I showed Eddie the contract with the revision for the price increase and gave him the drafts to cover the amount. I kept the draft for $550 and had Eddie call his boss (the truck owner) so I could explained what had happened. I didn't want Eddie to get in trouble. Eddie's boss understood. In fact, he was concerned about how he was going to get paid since bank drafts weren't in his name and he did not enjoy a trusting relationship with the trucking company.
Minutes later I receive a call from the owner of the trucking company. I told him I what I thought of his business practices and that I wasn't going to pay him the $550 unless he could prove that I legally owed it to him.
Leverage rather than customer service was his only concern. "Has the truck been unloaded?" he asked. I hung up the phone.
I guess it was at that moment that I made the choice to become a liar, a thief, a con-man and a deadbeat customer. I can live with my new personal branding. I don't think I'll be paying anyone to move it down in the search engine rankings.
So what are the lessons?
Well if you are trucking a boat, clearly I'm not the right guy to ask how to find a good trucking company. We went with the choice that our friends made, checked out the company website, the Better Business Bureau, talked to the sales guy and thought we were making a good choice. Our friends ended up with the same terrible experience we had by the time their boat was delivered. But I have learned a few things:
1) Get a referral. Talk to a boat broker or industry professional that you trust. Who do they recommend?
2) Google the company's name with the words "ripoff", "scam", "complaint" and "illegal" . Read the actual reports. If you find a consistent pattern of negative behaviour, there is a good chance that you are dealing with a scoundrel.
3) Find out who owns the company. Google their name. Look past the first page of results.
4) Pay no attention to the company's own quotes from satisfied clients. Even bad guys will get it right occasionally. Really bad guys will just write fiction.
5) Don't pay too much heed to BBB profiles. Most people don't bother filing and if they do, no record exists after 3 years. Cases of really poor business practices are "administratively closed" because in spite of "the company's best efforts", (sometimes meaning nothing more than lies they tell the BBB), the parties couldn't reach an agreement.
6) Ask for proof of insurance. If they give any excuses or tell you it will be available after the truck is booked, assume there is none.
7) Don't sign a contract that has the word "convenience" in it. That's the trucking company's convenience, not yours. Negotiate a specific date for pick-up and delivery with reasonable boundaries for delay and clearly defined outcomes for non-performance.
8) Make sure your deposit is truly refundable. Look for the fine print that says once a truck is dispatched, the deposit is gone. "Dispatch" may just mean the trucking company has waived a magic fairy wand. It doesn't mean your boat is going to move.
9) Pay your deposit with a credit card. One reputable Northwest boat transport company says that if a company even asks for a deposit, it's almost sure sign of a scam.
10) Understand that the contract is just a piece of paper and that if you deal with an unsavoury company, the only thing that matters to them is money and leverage. If they have your deposit, they have leverage. If they have your boat, they won't unload it until they get what they want. What they want, is just enough that it's not worth your trouble to hire a lawyer or involve law enforcement - that extra few hundred dollars.
11) If you get the call that some unforeseen delay has occurred, and that an alternate truck is available for a higher fee, pull the plug, find another company and sue for your deposit. If not, be prepared to pay that extra amount and be forever comfortable with being the victim of a scam.
Oh and the final lesson I learned. If you are going to piss somebody off, you need to be prepared for what it might do to your reputation.
07 October 2010
Dr Leah gave us a discount!
I think she knew she was competing against the do-it-yourself alternative. The whole deal was only $350 a toe. With two toes gone, that's a perpetual 10% discount on having the nails clipped!
Some caution is advised though. At say $5.00 a cutting, a 10% discount will yield a 50 cent saving. With $700 invested, you need 1500 nail clippings to achieve payback. So it's really only worthwhile to think about lobbing off your dog's toes if you anticipate they will live more than 125 years. Maybe it's cheaper on a per toe basis to take the whole foot, but the economics are still dodgy.
Scupper is doing well. They discharged him early yesterday for good behaviour. The toes are being sent off to the pathologist for analysis to see if there's good margin on the tumour bits. His bandage stays on for a week.
He's resting comfortably at home. Thank you for all the cards and flowers.
29 September 2010 | Vancouver
Steve / Moist
Often when he goes to the vet, Dr. Leah cuts Scupper's toe nails.
Not this time.
The cancer is back.
Actually, that is not quite true. Technically, we know that it never went away. Some clump of cells just hung out beyond the scalpel's reach and waited until now to multiply on mass.
This time it won't be just the tumors with a little margin. It will be much more aggressive. Some toes will have to go.
Maybe a foot.
You never really know how these things go. But they remain hopeful that he will be able to live a happy dog life, perhaps without winning any dance competitions.
He had blood tests today and he is scheduled for surgery next week. We are expecting an estimate on the surgery costs from Dr. Leah.
I called Al to see if he could give us a competitive quote. He was a little reluctant to do toes. Some concern that Scupper might be upset by the crunching noise even if he wouldn't be able to feel it.
Perhaps it's better to use a real veterinarian and general anaesthesia this time. Dr. Leah is going to use her laser scalpel. Tracey won't have to go digging in the bilge for the soldering iron this time.
We'll let you know how it goes. And what it costs.
For sure, we'll get a 10% to 25% discount on the nail clipping.
Unlimited Ice and Omega 3s
23 September 2010
Steve / Moist
I have 62 pairs of socks. I have no idea how I came to own 62 pairs of socks. I counted the ridiculous quantity as I unpacked them and put them away in my two sock drawers. Why do we even own socks? I noticed as I was driving by St. Andrew's that they were having a sock drive for the homeless.
I think I shall become a philanthropist.
I've returned to the working world. I needed to upgrade my communications device because it would be a terrible thing if I had to keep someone waiting for an hour or two to answer to an email. So I ordered a device on line that cost the equivalent of a month's salary in Mexico and signed up for a data plan that would buy most of a family's groceries. And my data allotment will allow me to download the annual literary output of a good sized continent every hour.
And somehow this is all vitally important.
In Mexico, Stu, we ate chicken eggs. They came in different sizes and shapes. We carried them home in a plastic bag rather than an egg carton. Often they weren't perfectly clean. But we would keep them for a couple of weeks without any refrigeration and they were very tasty, though the shells were kind of hard.
Now we eat eggs that come from Omega 3s. Does an Omega 3 look like a chicken? The eggs are all perfectly shaped and similarly sized. We always keep them in the refrigerator. I'm not sure why, but we have the space, so why not? Do you think Omega 3s have the green inker stamp thing built in to their oviduct, or is that put on in the factory where they box the eggs?
Speaking of the refrigerator. It has water and ice on the door. Unlimited. Beautiful. Though the water pipe thingy started leaking the other day and destroyed our kitchen floor. The dining room we might be able to refinish, but the kitchen is done. And the washing machine broke. And the cars needed several thousand dollars of repairs and insurance.
We sure hemorrhage a lot of cash here in this land-based life. I thought boating was expensive, but there is only so much stuff you can break when everything is contained in 34 feet. On land, there seems to be no limit to what we can destroy.
We've lightened the waterline on Blackdragon, Stu. We sold off the watermaker, the liferaft, the drogue, and the single sideband. But we brought the heavy molcajete bowls home.
The molcajete is the single greatest achievement in Mexican cuisine. I don't know that I've ever seen them served here. It could be that restaurants have a little liability concern over serving up smouldering hot lava bowls with boiling liquids to people drinking large quantities of margaritas. Tracey has perfected the recipe. So even though we've resumed the land based life, we can still enjoy some of the best aspects of our adventures.
Tell me Stu, why is that we now have an unlimited supply of ice, we don't sit back in the cockpit and enjoy a margarita before the sun sets each day?
We are alive.
21 July 2010 | Bellingham, WA
Steve / Cold
There are rumours floating around that the Dolling family hit it big in Vegas and took over a suite in the Bellagio living it large on champagne and bacon wrapped somethingorothers.
Rest assured these rumours are not true. We have been very busy rebuilding the boat. It is back in the cold cold water of the north.
The trucking experience was over the top. Easily the most stressful period of our entire voyage. Unfortunately, I can't write about here until we figure out what we are going to do to ensure that society remains just.
Everyone is well, we set sail tomorrow. Now tell me again what the alcohol import limits are for Canada. I think we have to drink a lot of tequila tonight.
Real or No Real
05 July 2010
So we left the boat down in Guaymas. Jorge gave us a ride all the way to Tucson. Horacio is going to look after having the boat put on the truck. So we are left with the challenge of reintegrating with the real world.
Nothing better than a roadtrip to get us reacquainted. The Grand Canyon. Vegas. That's right. Vegas, Baby!
Scupper is not all that impressed. Really there is not a lot of nice green grass to run on. The pavement is too hot for his feet.
It's been interesting for Foster. Vegas is family-oriented now. The big hotels have roller coasters. People hand out trading cards on all the street corners.
And Foster invented a new game in Vegas. It's called "Real or No Real". When a suspicious set of breasts is spotted in a hotel lobby, the "Real or No Real" challenge is issued and we try to guess. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to find out if the answer is correct without being rude.
We went to the big show: "O". A Cirque de Soleil extravaganza with a giant mechanical pool as a stage. Scupper would have enjoyed it, but he decided to chill out in his room. Or he could have called one of the trading card ladies to come to the room and rub his back. Or maybe he hit the casinos, we're not really sure. But he was in the room when we got back.
So we've moved on from our fantasy world of Mexico cruising and have rejoined the real world.
Real or No Real?