Buyer Beware

That's a motto you might want to keep in mind next time you go shopping for a used car

When Fox set out to buy a car two years ago, she was well aware her credit was only fair. Because she had defaulted on a mortgage years earlier, she knew that a new-car dealer would make her bring in a friend or a family member to cosign a loan. "I said, 'Let me just go someplace where I can handle it on my own,'" the South Miami-Dade resident recalls. "It will be my headache."

Indeed. Fox found a 1990 Chevrolet Corsica at Coconut Palm that looked as though it could dependably transport her to her job as a computer clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. A few hours after she rolled off the lot, though, the car stalled in traffic. She called the dealership to complain, and says she was given the run-around. "Did it have gas?" she was asked. When the problem persisted, she took it to a Svadbik mechanic, who found nothing wrong with it. According to Fox, he also asked if she was putting in enough gas.

In frustration at her inability to fix the problem, Fox returned the car to Svadbik in December 1997. "I figured I'd get a letter saying it sold for whatever amount of money and I'd have to end up paying the balance," she says. "I got that letter all right -- about a week after they had taken my other car."

At the same time she turned in her Corsica, Fox bought a new Plymouth Breeze from a dealership, paying with money given to her by her 85-year-old mother. On May 18, 1998, shortly before 1:00 a.m., a repo man sent by Svadbik took the Breeze from her driveway as she slept in her back bedroom. The repo man left Svadbik's work phone number. "At 9:00 the next morning," she recounts, "I started repeatedly calling the number. To this time, none of them people has ever called me back. Nobody."

Fox hired an attorney and sued Svadbik for the return of her Plymouth. The case hinged on a "guaranty agreement" Fox was alleged to have signed. If she had signed it, Svadbik would have been entitled to repossess the Plymouth to satisfy the Corsica debt. If she hadn't signed it, Svadbik could not take the car. Fox says she never signed it.

At a pretrial hearing, Svadbik provided county Judge Michael J. Samuels with a photocopy of the guaranty agreement, apparently signed by Fox. When Svadbik could not produce an original signed document, though, he agreed to immediately return the car to Fox. He later agreed to pay $1000 in damages.

"I'm sure they have done this to countless other people who didn't have the means to fight them," Fox says. "Hell, I didn't have the means. This is how these type of dealers prey on our type of people. We're good people who don't have the best credit, so we have to wiggle and squiggle our way by. And they know it and they take advantage of us. I'm telling you, they prey on us."

At Fox's pretrial hearing, Svadbik denied under oath ever copying customer signatures onto blank forms. But Vickie White insists she once saw him use a computer to digitally scan a signature from one document and transfer it to another. (She also has testified to this under oath.) She cites Noe Jaramillo as an example. In September 1996 Jaramillo purchased a four-door 1988 Chevrolet Corsica from Svadbik. According to the records obtained by White, his starting balance was more than $1000. At a rate of $73 per week, he paid off the car on March 13, 1998.

In May of that year, however, the car was repossessed. White says Jaramillo made the mistake of cosigning a Svadbik loan for a truck purchased by his brother, a loan that fell into default. But merely cosigning the loan was not enough to have his car repossessed. Jaramillo also needed to have signed several key documents, White says, including a power of attorney and a guaranty agreement. According to White, there are no originals of these documents on file, only photocopies. And, she contends, Jaramillo never signed any originals. "This is [Jaramillo's] signature," she says, holding up a photocopy of the document, "but he never signed it. They took his signature from something else that he signed, then put his signature on this form. I know this for a fact because I pulled the documents out of the file that are supposed to be the quote-unquote original documents, but they aren't. It looked like a photocopy from a photocopy machine. It was not signed in blue or black ink."

Cream Puff Tercel -- Almost Runs!
The Tercel is parked in the back lot of the Toyota line, a tiny, unpretentious economy model. Like most cars, the Tercel's design has evolved over the years. Modern Tercels have a smooth hood and trunk, but in 1983 the car was an edgy, square-backed box. Jeanty Joseph bought one of these '83 Tercels from Svadbik in November 1991.

According to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White, Joseph was required to pay a down payment of half the approximately $4000 price of the car. One week after he bought it, though, Joseph returned the Tercel to the dealership. Records reflect that the vehicle was soon junked and Joseph's account was credited $100. Six-and-a-half years later, in May 1998, after Joseph's account had accrued more than $1300 in interest, Svadbik seized a Ford Aerostar Joseph had purchased from a different dealer.

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