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By Laura T. Coffey
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/16/2006 8:31:02 AM ET 2006-10-16T12:31:02

The year was 1996. I had recently moved to Seattle, a city where I knew almost nobody, and I needed to buy a car – fast. I was jittery; this would be the first car purchase I’d ever made without any assistance from family or friends. I spotted a classified ad in the paper for a 1982 Volvo in mint condition – like new! – thanks to its 2-year-old engine. 

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I responded to the ad, and the friendly man who answered the phone told me the Volvo’s story:  The car had belonged to his grandfather for years, and had dutifully transported the family on fun trips to the Pacific Coast and Disneyland. Two years earlier, his grandfather had brought the car in for a routine tune-up and oil change, and the careless staff at the shop drained out the old oil and forgot to replace it with new oil. The grandfather drove down the street, and within minutes the engine seized up on him. He wound up scoring a brand new engine at a nearby Volvo dealership, courtesy of the oil-change folks. 

That meant that if I bought the car, I would essentially be getting a 2-year-old car, not a 14-year-old one. What a deal, right?

Well, the nice man on the phone was lying. About absolutely everything, including his identity. The engine was in fact 14 years old, and the man had owned the car for less than two days.

Overwhelmed by the rigors of starting a new life in a new city, I trusted the man and handed him $3,500 of the $5,000 I had in my savings account – overpaying by at least $1,700. I was left with an aging car and forged bill of sale.

When I realized just how badly I’d been had, I decided to fight back. After considerable sleuth work, I discovered that the man and his family were running a large-scale used-car scam and targeting vulnerable women with every sale. I contacted (and kept pestering) the police with my findings, and I even got the car salesman’s photograph to run on television under the heading “Western Washington’s Most Wanted.”

Four long years later, I received a letter from the county prosecutor’s office, thanking me for my help in cracking the Seattle car-scam case and informing me that the head of the family who sold me the Volvo had finally been put in jail on charges of theft by deception. In the letter, I also received an offer for restitution – and I actually got my $1,700 back.

This experience taught me some valuable lessons. First, you never have to tolerate unfair treatment. Fight back! Second, it’s quite easy for otherwise on-the-ball people to get conned, hoodwinked or confused when they’re feeling vulnerable, overwhelmed or just plain exhausted.

That’s why I love “Ten Tips” so much. I approach every column with a great sense of zeal and determination to help people do what I failed to do on that fateful day in 1996: keep their money in their wallets.

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