When Jeannette Libby realized she couldn’t afford the new car she’d just bought, everyone – even a car dealer friend – told her she had three days to return it.

They were wrong.

The three-day rule is a common misconception. So is the belief that emergency veterinarians are required to treat sick animals, regardless of their owners’ ability to pay. So is the belief that heating oil companies can’t charge for emergency deliveries, for small deliveries and broken contracts.

All wrong.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office gets thousands of calls, letters and e-mails from consumers every year. Many of them will end up in mediation or in court: contracts not honored, services not rendered, returns not taken. But some won’t go anywhere because consumers didn’t understand their rights and responsibilities beforehand.

Those consumers will be out of luck.

New car

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Libby was in an accident that totaled her car.

The 75-year-old Auburn resident had paid off the car before she retired from the Abused Women’s Advocacy Project a couple of years ago, but then she put the vehicle up as collateral to help her niece buy a trailer. When the car was totaled, the credit union took the insurance money to secure the home.

Libby had no car. She had no down payment, no trade-in.

She panicked.

“I thought, ‘My god, what am I going to do? I need a car,'” she said.

So a couple of days after the crash, Libby walked into a dealership and spoke to a salesman she’d bought from before and trusted. She told him the situation and asked for help.

Looking back, Libby figures she was still in shock from the accident. She cried easily and felt like she was in a fog. Nothing seemed real. So when the salesman put some papers in front of her, she said, she signed without really realizing what she was doing.

After a test drive she was handed more paperwork to sign. Then keys.

She’d just bought a new car.

She could only afford payments of $200 to $250 a month. When she walked out of the dealership, her monthly payments, including an extended warranty, were more than $380.

Libby immediately regretted her purchase. She called the dealership and asked to return the car.

The dealership refused.

There’s a widespread belief that consumers have three days to back out of a deal, according to the Attorney General’s Office. That belief is completely wrong.

Consumers do have three days to back out of a deal made with a door-to-door salesman. But only door-to-door salesmen.

“The Legislature just presumed you’d say anything to get rid of them sometimes,” said Assistant Attorney General Jim McKenna.

Consumers don’t have the right to return a car – or break any other purchase agreement – within three days. Once a consumer signs, the contract is binding.

Libby had no easy legal out, but experts say unhappy consumers always have at least one recourse.

“Go back and throw yourself on the mercy of the car dealership,” McKenna said.

One local car dealer said his dealership has swapped unhappy customers’ new cars for something they like better. It has also completely undone deals before.

Libby’s complaints did little at first. The salesman offered to lower her payments by extending her loan a year. Libby declined, saying she wasn’t sure she’d live long enough to pay off the loan she has, let alone an extended version.

Finally, the dealership’s president got involved. He dropped the extended warranty and got Libby’s loan rewritten. It only lowered her payments by about $25 month, but Libby was happier.

“At least something happened,” she said. “Maybe it won’t happen to somebody else because it went this far.”

Heat

Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, gets heating oil calls a lot, many from people hoping to confirm an assumption: Those heating oil contracts aren’t really binding, right?

Heating oil contracts have been around for years. Customers liked them because they could lock in a price. Dealers liked them because they guaranteed business.

But the contracts stopped being lauded this winter when oil prices plummeted. Consumers who’d locked in oil at more than $4 a gallon last summer were frustrated to see oil dip below $2 a gallon. They wanted to break their contracts.

“I had to explain to them, ‘No, you can’t,'” Nutting said.

At the same time, as the economy worsens and incomes drop, customers are less likely to order more than 100 gallons of oil at a time and are more likely to wait until the last minute, resulting in emergency deliveries. Both situations can result in extra fees.

Nutting gets calls about that, too.

“I would guess most people haven’t stopped to think about it,” he said.

By state law, locked-in oil contracts are just like any other contract – binding to both parties. Unless customers bought downside price protection, a kind of insurance dealers offered, they’re required to pay the per-gallon rate they agreed to.

Jamie Py, president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association, estimates about half of customers bought downside protection.

When customers signed a contract, the dealer reserved at least 75 percent of the oil on their behalf. If a customer ducks out of the deal, the dealer still must pay the wholesaler that higher price.

Some dealers have made concessions, allowing customers to buy out of the contract or lowering the per gallon price a little. But some customers have walked away, saying they simply won’t pay.

By law, the dealer has the right to take those people to court. Py said dealers are deciding now whether they should do just that.

Also by state law, dealers must deliver oil as long as: the customer has cash or guaranteed government payment, the dealer regularly services the area and the person requests at least 20 gallons. Even if the customer owes the oil company money, it still must deliver oil.

But dealers have the right to charge fees for emergency deliveries or deliveries made on any day other then their regularly scheduled day in the area. Those fees must be limited to the dealer’s actual cost for making the unscheduled delivery.

And although they have to deliver as little as 20 gallons if a customer requests it, they can charge up to $20 for any delivery under 100 gallons or under half of the oil tank’s storage capacity, whichever is less.

Pets

Last spring, Mike Holden of Paris lost his beloved hound dog during a disastrous pregnancy. So when his young son’s pregnant Boston terrier started showing signs of distress while giving birth earlier this month, he knew the situation could turn deadly in a hurry.

It was 2 a.m. The automated answering machine at his regular vet advised all emergencies go to the Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid Maine. Holden, his wife and son rushed the dog from their home to the clinic in Lewiston.

The vet agreed the dog was in trouble. He advised a cesarean section to save her life.

“Then they came out with an itemized bill,” Holden said.

The more than $950 payment was due upfront.

And Holden didn’t have it.

Human emergency rooms are required to care for dying patients regardless of their ability to pay. Animal emergency clinics are not.

Pet owners often don’t realize that.

Although owners can be charged with animal cruelty if they don’t get medical care for their animals, vets are under no obligation to treat without payment. The state’s Animal Welfare Program gets three or four calls a month from people whose animals have a serious condition they can’t afford to treat.

“It can be heartbreaking because a person literally is having to choose big sacrifices. Do I not pay the rent or do I treat my dog?” asked program director Norm Worley.

Erich Baumann, chief of staff at the Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid Maine, said he has to make tough choices as well: charge for treatment or close his doors.

“We are not state or federally funded. We have to survive or we go bankrupt,” Baumann said.

His clinic has to pay staff and buy and maintain the state-of-the art equipment required in an emergency. Based on that, Baumann said, an office visit costs $78. Depending on what’s wrong with the animal, care can quickly balloon to $1,000 or more. The clinic requires a 75 percent deposit, with the remainder due when the animal is picked up.

In an effort to make the situation easier, the clinic accepts as many forms of payment as it can, Baumann said, including cash, check, credit cards and a special medical credit card. Pet insurance is an option, but insurance reimburses the owner, not the clinic, so owners still have to pay upfront.

When owners can’t afford care and the animal is suffering, the clinic offers another option. Euthanasia costs $54.

Baumann has refused to treat animals whose owners couldn’t pay. He has also given treatment at reduced cost, but he said people took advantage of that and he had to scale back such charity.

“I do envy people in a human emergency room that something really critical comes in, you don’t have to stop and say ‘Can you pay for this?'” Baumann said.

In Holden’s case, Baumann offered to do the surgery if the family could pay $400 upfront. In the wee hours of the morning, while the family dog struggled to give birth, Holden dashed to his brother’s house nearby and got a check. The next day he pawned his belongings so the check wouldn’t bounce.

The dog had surgery. Both she and the puppies survived.

Holden understands vets are under no obligation to treat animals. He just doesn’t like it.

“It was a life-and-death situation,” Holden said. “We would have lost her and the pups if they didn’t do anything.”

Experts say pet owners should have money set aside just for animal emergencies. They also say spaying and neutering, and keeping the dog on a leash prevent a lot of emergency situations.

Attorney General’s Office consumer law guide: http://www.maine.gov/ag/consumer/consumer_law_guide.shtml

To file a consumer complaint call 1-800-436-2131 or e-mail [email protected]


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