Toyota credited my account by $4,000 but doesn’t want to give me a finder’s fee

Sally Holman-Hebert has an auto loan with Toyota Financial Services. But back in April, things started going haywire with her account.

Although she still owed $4,000 on her loan, Toyota zeroed out her account and sent a letter in the mail releasing the lien. Holman-Hebert knew that wasn’t right — so she immediately spoke up. The company told her the error was due to a transposed digit on her account number, and it would be fixed within a week.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t. On top of Toyota’s error stating she owed nothing, her account was closed, so she couldn’t make the payments she actually owed.

This case raises some important questions about what you can expect when you’re the customer of a large company, and a mistake results from being, well, just a number.

Holman-Hebert tried repeatedly to get to the bottom of the situation, but her calls to customer service were met with automated messages to call back later. Soon, weeks turned into months, and her would-be payment due date came and went — once, twice, and finally a third time.

In June, a phone representative finally took her call and told her she could have taken that lien release letter to the DMV and gotten a clean title — leaving Toyota holding the bag for the $4,000 loss. “I chose to be honest,” she explained, “as I didn’t want this to affect my credit or come back to reflect negatively on me somehow.”

Toyota finally reopened the account, but when it did, instead of the $4,000 owed, the amount had doubled to $8,000. Holman-Hebert had to call again and the balance issue was fixed, leaving her with the total balance of $4,000, as expected.

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Holman-Hebert wants our help getting some kind of compensation for three months of phone calls to the company — in other words, some kind of reward for having been honest with Toyota and working to resolve the issue. Holman-Hebert says the Toyota phone representatives were largely polite and helpful, but they don’t want to reward her for her honesty.

“They acknowledge and appreciate verbally that I did them a favor by calling to resolve the issue,” she wrote, “but they are not compensating me for their mistake and my time and the inconvenience to try to resolve it the past three months.”

Well, if you found a wallet containing $4,000 on the street and turned it in, you might get a “finder’s fee” for returning it untouched to its rightful owner. But companies are less sentimental about their money. I’m convinced that before the ink has dried on an auto loan, the customer has become a number in the computer of accounts, programmed to do things automatically, like execute electronic transfers and charge interest. And while there are some nice customer service agents willing to help in a bind, they’re not giving out freebies or adding names to their Christmas card list.

After all, this is business.

Hebert-Holman did the right thing by calling Toyota and explaining the mixup. But she is still legally obligated to make payments on her loan.

When Hebert-Holman pushed for compensation, Toyota told her it is unable to change the contractual agreement of her loan, and will not waive car payments to compensate her. The company told her the best it could do is extend the loan by three months so that she could continue making equal payments for the duration of the loan — essentially suspending activity for those three months her account was in limbo.

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From my perspective, that seems fair. And while this error by Toyota was an annoyance and an inconvenience, we know all too well that companies are unwilling to compensate customers for lost time.

With the exception of her aggravation and lost time, Hebert-Holman hasn’t lost anything that she is owed. If we all sought compensation for similarly frustrating experiences — long lines at TSA, 12-hour delivery windows for furniture, or enduring an unwarranted IRS audit — we’d all be rich. On the bright side, Toyota didn’t charge her interest or fees for late payments.

It would be nice if Toyota did something to show its appreciation. She might have more luck at the dealership, where the most human side of the auto industry tends to emerge. If she is a regular customer in its service department, the company might be willing to offer her a free oil change or some other complimentary service for her trouble.

But her claim for compensation in the way of waived car payments, unfortunately, makes its way to our Case Dismissed file.

Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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