By on February 14, 2012

It only had 65,000 miles.  A 2002 Mazda Millenia—my personal favorite of the Japanese near-luxury cars of that era.   I am an automotive enthusiast, but much like others here at TTAC, it’s not in the standard sense.  I’m the kind of guy who gets a rise out of seeing a purple Suzuki X90 on the road.  I would take an Alfa 159 over nearly any other car on the planet today (If I could get one in America), just because I want to park it in my driveway and lick it all over.   I value cars with character, unique vehicles with stories behind them, cars that represent value, have faults, and ultimately are fun or interesting.

So now you may understand why the Millenia was my preferred pseudo luxury ride of the turn of the, uh, Millenium.  Mazda built a car that had some of the trademarks of Japanese luxo-sedan comfort and quality, and true to form, made sure they paid homage to their own tradition of senseless eccentricity (Miller cycle V6), of course at the expense of reliability.  But fear not…this car had character, low miles, a nice interior and was stupid cheap.

The auction was No Reserve, ending soon.  Having bought a few cars from eBay, I felt comfortable with the inherent fact that you are taking a bit of a gamble when you commit to buying a car, sight unseen.  The other cars I’ve bought turned out to be wonderful values, and served me very well.  So you do what you can…run the Carfax (clean), check the sellers rating (98% on hundreds of transactions, which was lower than I’d like but…) send a few emails and ask a few questions.  I familiarized myself with this Mazda’s history of transmission and EGR related issues, so I asked about them.  The seller—we’ll refer to him as Chuck–answered my questions satisfactorily (transmission is smooth, no warning lights, car runs great, etc.), I placed my bid, won, and was soon on a 500 mile roundtrip journey to Delaware to pick up the car with my little brother assisting as a co-driver.

We arrive at the address I was given, give the car a once-over and go for a test drive.  The seller, admittedly, came across as a sketchy character, however, he evidently had showered or at least doused himself in fragrance, his hair was in orderly fashion, he spoke English and he wasn’t murdering anyone at the very moment I showed up to buy the car.  This was an eBay used car transaction, so you never know what kind of character you’re going to deal with, and you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, right?

I had a safety net–I figured that even if there was $2k worth of problems, I’d still be ok considering what I paid.  The car drove great, had no leaks or other evidence of mechanical issues.  I know that people advocate checking with a trusted mechanic—with reason—however, it must be said it is extremely impractical when traveling to get a car in an unfamiliar area.  I handed over the cash and my brother drove the Millenia home while I drove my old truck.  No problems getting home, the car ran great.

The next day I go out to the driveway and start the car up.  I notice the check engine light is on.  I back out of the driveway and see a big puddle of red.  Ruh-roh.

I top off the leaking transmission fluid and start rummaging around the car.  Inside the glove box, I find a Midas oil change receipt showing a name and address—not the same address I picked the car up at.  I also find another crumpled up receipt that I open.  This second receipt is from Autozone for a bottle of Lucas Transmission stop-slip, dated the day before—early in the morning.  He bought the fluid just before I came to pickup the car.

First things first—I call Chuck repeatedly, and he ignores the calls.  I get the car checked out and it is determined the transmission has a bad rear seal, and potentially more damage.  So I then file a claim with eBay Auction Insurance.   I come to find that the eBay account doesn’t belong to Chuck, but rather his friend, who allowed him to post on his account.  eBay Auction Insurance first tries to mediate and establish communication between the seller and I, however, being that the eBay account holder isn’t the guy who actually sold me the car, they don’t get too far.  Chuck does manage to make me one offer– if I drive 500 miles roundtrip (with a bad transmission?), when I get back to his town he’ll have his buddy swap another transmission in the car.  Clearly, this guy is an amateur.

To proceed with eBay Auction Insurance, I have to get multiple quotes for the transmission repair, which of course, required another leap of faith to open the thing up, where they determined a rebuild was necessary.  To Auction Insurance’s credit, they did cover the majority of the expense for a rebuilt transmission from my local Cottman franchise.  In order to get the check from them, I had to sign a release stating that I will not file any further claims with them on this car.  According to the Auction Insurance representative, they got nothing from the seller—they just flat-out cut me a check.  I’m pleased with this result, so I put new brakes and tires on the car to make it ready for hopeful long-term ownership.  However, over the course of the next year, the radiator explodes, the timing belt snaps, the cylinders misfire (frequently), and my wife gets stuck in the ghetto alone one day when it fails to start.  At 65,000 miles??

My wife and I both work, both drive a lot, and we’ve now got two very young children.  There is zero time in our lives to deal with unreliable cars.  The Mazda has got to go.  So I’m at a dealership looking at a new car, and meanwhile decide to get a trade-in appraisal on the Millenia.  I’m presented with a new Carfax.  This new Carfax shows that when I bought the car, there wasn’t 65,000 on the odometer as my first Carfax showed.  There was actually at least 113,000 miles.  A shop that serviced the car during those missing 50k kept old records that weren’t updated to Carfax until after I bought the car.  Carfax suggests there has been a mileage rollback on the odometer.  The value of the Mazda plummets.  I wasn’t going to rely on this car for my family, so I sell it at a significant loss with a full disclosure of the mileage discrepancy.

I contact Carfax and ask about their guarantee.  The truth is, there is no guarantee if the DMV doesn’t have a title on hand that shows an odometer discrepancy, which of course, they didn’t.   So I call the shop that according to the newer Carfax serviced the car during all of those “lost” miles.  They tell me they had just updated to a new computer based system and all their data was uploaded to Carfax—which explains why it wasn’t there when I first ran the report.  This smelled bad to me, so I ask for the service records.  They tell me they’ll release them to me only if I file for a request via the Maryland Attorney General.  I do, and a few weeks later I get the invoices.  The phone number of the owner isn’t Chuck’s, number, so I call it, and I get through to the guy who owned the car before Chuck.  This owner tells me his story…his daughter wrecked the car, so he put it on eBay and sold it as “salvaged” even though he never reported the wreck to the DMV or his insurance (didn’t want premiums to go up on his daughter).  So there was no salvage title.  He confirmed that he sold it to Chuck.  Bingo.

I go back to square one and the Midas receipt I found the same day I found the stop-slip receipt, and locate Chuck’s real address printed on the receipt (which wasn’t the one I picked the car up at).  I do some Googling—odometer fraud is a federal crime, so, I first contact the Department of Transportation, where I am informed that they only care about cases where established businesses are implicit of such fraud.   They tell me to go to the local jurisdiction where the transaction took place and file a civil case against the seller.

I don’t quite want to do that yet, so I go to the Consumer Protection Agencies in my state (Virginia), Delaware, and also California, where eBay is based (to request disclosure of previous owner’s sale to Chuck).  I report the fraud to each but in the end, no state or federal agency is going to help you in a case against another individual, and neither Carfax nor eBay are of any help at this point, either.   It’s just me and Chuck.

Let me add something important here…I’m the kind of guy who has to learn everything in life first hand.  This character fault has served me well in some manners, and not so well in others.  But I also take ownership and I don’t give up easily…I made this mess, so now I’ve got to clean it up.

I do my research and figure out what jurisdiction in Delaware would cover a civil case.  In September of 2010 I file a civil suit with the proper court in Delaware to sue Chuck for losses incurred from his fraud.   I take a wild guess and hope that the address on that Midas receipt is his residence and that the sheriff will find this guy when he goes to serve the papers.

Six months later I receive a response that the court has received and reviewed my case and will serve the civil suit to the defendant.

The following month I receive a notice in the mail telling me that I can claim a default judgment.  The defendant was serviced the case and refused to respond in any way.  I then submit a request to confirm the judgment.  Two weeks or so later, I receive a confirmation response.  Another few weeks pass, and I receive in the mail a Motion for a New Trial that Chuck has submitted to the court.  He claims that he can prove that he is not responsible for any of the car’s problems, and that he sold the car “as-is”.  I’m pissed that I’ve got to attend this hearing now—which was filed 20 days beyond the allowed time period but still awarded to the defendant by the court—but I’m happy at least that I now know for certain I’ve got the right guy and the right address.

I take a day off of work and drive 500 miles roundtrip for the hearing.  The defendant doesn’t show.  The judge tells me that Chuck filed for a new date for the hearing just the day before—saying he couldn’t make it.  This was not a timely filing—and neither was the original motion in the first place.  I remind the judge of this, and she denies the defendant’s request for a new trial—the default judgment holds ground.

Time to collect…but how?  I pay for one of those Intelius reports and it doesn’t do me any good–there are no employment records to be found on this guy.  Perusing the Delaware Justice of the Peace Court website, I find that I can file a request with the Delaware DMV to disclose any automotive assets they have on record for the defendant.  I do so.  Two weeks go by until I get a response.  Lo – he owns a 2004 BMW 740, no liens.  Even in the direst of shape, this car is worth more than the damages he owes me, so it will serve my purposes handsomely.  I do the next logical thing—file a levy for sale on that asset of his.  In other words, a sheriff serves the defendant with a lien on his property, with interest accruing.  If the defendant still doesn’t pay what is owed by a given time, then the plaintiff can request that the sheriff hold a sale on that property.  In some states the sheriff will seize the asset, but not in Delaware—he holds a sale literally at the defendant’s driveway.   Two weeks go by.  I receive a response in the mail—the sheriff paid the defendant a visit, and instead of accepting the levy, Chuck got in said BMW and drove off.  Levy was therefore “Refused”.

This is a moment of frustration…so a sheriff can show up at your door to inform you that they are going to put a levy on your car, and you can say “No Thanks”, and drive away, and they’ll do…nothing.  The court then sent me a letter noting that if I want to continue the case, I must send a letter to the court to ask them to hold a hearing for the defendant to explain why he refused the levy.  If he doesn’t show up or doesn’t provide a good excuse, he will be held in contempt of court and a warrant could potentially be put out for his arrest.

So of course I send a letter to the court asking them to hold this hearing.  They schedule the hearing in August of 2011.  I choose not to attend this hearing, figuring it was not worth taking a day off of work, driving 500 miles, and going to another hearing where the defendant most likely doesn’t show up.  Instead, I fax in a statement to the court, informing them that although I won’t be present, I request the hearing to continue and that the defendant should be held in contempt of court if he does not comply with the levy.  This was a good move…the judge noted that I was prejudiced in having to travel and saw my fax as a good faith letter that I was still fully involved with the process.  If I hadn’t sent this letter, I fear the whole thing may have merely been dismissed, and all my efforts would have been for naught.

I call the court the day after the hearing to find out what happened.  To my surprise, the defendant showed up this time, and avoided the contempt charge by saying he would pay the amount owed.  I receive a call from the Constable (Sheriff) informing me that he is going to deliver the levy to the defendant.  A few days later, I get in the mail a copy of the Levy—it has now been made on the BMW.  But that doesn’t mean this is over…now I’ve got to file yet another request with the court to hold a Constable Sale on the item that has been levied.   I file the request, submit the fee, and wait again.  The Constable sale is scheduled for over a month away.  At this point it has been 13 months since I filed the original suit.

The sale date rolls around and I get a call from a sheriff around 10am.  He is seemingly at the defendant’s doorstep about to auction off his 7-series, and the defendant presents him with a copy of a check and a certified mail receipt dated for the day prior, showing proof that he has sent me what is owed.  The sheriff asks if he can suspend the sale, so I grant it to him—although I have to fax the request to the court.  The next day I get my check in the mail.

In the end, this story is only useful as an educational tool for those who want to know how the process works when one gets caught up in the dark underworld of shady car deals and decides to go after somebody without the assistance or expense of an attorney.  Although it will involve time and effort on your behalf, the patience of a sage, as well as a little luck (like “smoking bullet” receipts in the glovebox), it is certainly possible, and it makes our world a better place if ultimately it helps us to more confidently and safely achieve our dreams and aspirations of cheap eBay Suzuki X90 ownership!

Tell us your eBay escapade.

 

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43 Comments on “eBay Escapades: How To Be A Small Time Car Flipping Crook...”


  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    One more reason NOT to buy a car, sight unseen, on eBay…

  • avatar
    stchang

    What an epic tale! I can’t even imagine how many hours you put into the research, the filing, the driving, and general grief. It’s enough to make one want to swear off used cars completely. There are several good lessons I’m taking away from your story, including the absolute need to have an independent mechanic check the car and not just go by the Carfax.

    • 0 avatar
      NN

      author here…indeed, I replaced this car with a brand new Malibu.

      • 0 avatar
        acuraandy

        OH NO. I own an ’08 Malibu. Hope you don’t put many miles on, maintenance (and I mean brakes, suspension, tires after 20-25k miles, the electric P/S when it gives out and makes it not ABLE TO STEER!, the torque converter locking in-and-out when it feels like while driving down the freeway) will eat you alive if you drive 30k miles/year like I used to.

        The GM ‘100k Warranty’, well, isn’t. Might want to keep your lawyer on retainer…

        P.S. Carfax is a joke.

  • avatar

    You CAN get a car checked out easily, even if you are 500 miles or more away. Check out the mechanix files on Cartalk.com or google auto repair in the zip code where the vehicle resides. Call the mechanic, ask if they will do an inspection for you on the car, and you can pay them $50 or whatever agreed upon amount (in PA and some other states, the actual inspection to get a sticker costs about $50).

    You tell the seller you want a mechanic to check it out, and after you talk to the mecahnic, you will give them a call back to talk over the results. You can stress that if everything checks out, you’ll buy the car at the full price they have it listed. Make sure you get a receipt with itemized items that were checked over, and if the seller bribes the mechanic or something to ensure the sale, you have recourse against the mechanic for giving the lemon a clean bill of health. Of course you’d need YOUR mechanic to check it over, or to check it over yourself once you got it home safely.

    If they balk at getting an inspection then it’s a huge red flag, and something is rotten in Denmark (or Delaware). There are always better deals or more interesting cars coming up for sale out there if you can afford to be patient.

    But a little bit of work up front (arranging an inspection) could’ve saved a lot of trouble in this instance. I’m glad you got your money back, and a cool story to inspire others out of it though!

    • 0 avatar
      colin42

      I’ve done this a couple of times. 1 I found a local garage who performed the inspection ~ $40 well spent. The other time I used a service through ebay which for ~$100 will schedule an appointment with the seller at the sellers location and perform an inspection – probably not as good as a mechanic but still worth the money

  • avatar
    GiddyHitch

    Epic story, Nick, and I’m glad that you were made whole in the end (less your time and aggravation). As a guy who likes to shop online and has something of an impulsive streak, this is a good reminder that I shouldn’t let that extend to cars. I’m just amazed that this Chuck guy (I hope that’s his real name) is evidently a successful crook (owns a five year old 7-series yet doesn’t have any employment) and yet still manages to leave the smoking gun (Autozone receipt) in the glovebox. I guess crime does pay.

    This whole saga about how an eBay scammer gets his comeuppance reminded me of the Powerbook Prank, in a way.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    The bigger issue here is odometer fraud. I believe it to be quite common and would never buy a car that had unknown history unless forced by necessity. And most mechanics are not looking for it/don’t care.

    Odometer fraud deserves its own story here on TTAC. How do people do it with newer digital gauges, etc?

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I agree that odometer fraud would be a good article.

      I knew a person who accomplished it by installing a switch on the line that lead to the speedometer. Apparently the odometer was driven off the same signal, so when the speedo was ‘off,’ the vehicle didn’t accrue any mileage. His tach ran off a different signal, so that’s what he used to gauge his speed.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        The cars that I’ve poked at with a good scantool have a second odometer in the ECU. So, to check for this kind of fraud, you look at the instrument cluster, query the ECU, and then compare the values. If they’re off by more than a couple of percent, fraud is likely.

        It might not work with cars from the 80s, but anything new enough to have OBD-II would probably have this feature?

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    That was a good read, and a great lesson in the complex and lengthy processes involved in formal litigation. Your story helps illustrate why so many cons end up getting away with these kinds of ‘white collar crimes,’ because most people will not pursue things as doggedly as you did (feeling it isn’t worth the trouble, and so on). Well done.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Buyer beware, for sure. Time to just cut your losses and move on. More and more, it seems the law only works for those who obey it…man’s justice – phooey.

    …at least you weren’t killed. Sorry to hear of stories like this, though. It shouldn’t be so.

  • avatar

    A great story! The first thing of any kine I ever bought on E-Bay was a 2000 Mazda Millenia Millenium Edition (!) in 2002. I paid about $3000 less than at a normal dealer and went to New York to pick up the car. The sellers, who looked like Ukrainian mafia in leather jackets, were quite pleasant to deal with and told me they usual bought Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs at auction (and their garage was full of them) but the Mazda had been a mistake. I suspect the car had been repoed but it looked pretty good. With 50,000 miles on the clock it had been driven a bit over the two years but sounded good, with no leaks anywhere. I figured the brakes were due for fixing soon but had not trouble cruising back to DC in a pouring rainstorm. The car did need a brake job and a new set of tires but otherwise was great for a year. Then the horrible CEL problems began but once the sensor issues were worked out I drove the car for another 8 years, pretty much all highway. Super comfortable, quiet and fast, it was fixable at the neighbourhood garage for the most part. I always thought it was one of the prettiest sedans around and it is too bad Mazda never figured out how to promote it after the whole Amati project was killed.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Great story.. At least you had some recourse and the Auction Insurance actually worked as advertised.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    One of the best pieces I have ever read on TTAC…. a valuable cautionary tale and a how-to for following up in the event one’s lust for a particular set of wheels temporarily gets in the way of one’s judgement….

    As a married man myself….I have to wonder a.) how much marital stress this ordeal caused our humble author, and b.) how much of his settlement went to flowers/dinner/compensatory gifts once the check cleared….?

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Even with a staight private deal with no fraud involved, I always assume the an automatic tranny is bad or on it’s last legs. I then price in a replacement tranny as part of the deal. That way you have some margin of safety.

  • avatar
    windswords

    As a former resident of Delaware I must give them props for their court system. Like anything legal it seems to twist and wind forever, but the system seems to work for those who persevere. In business law Delaware has very well developed court system and laws as a result of so many corporations being registered there. The system is very predictable (read: sane) and lawyers like that.

  • avatar
    FJ60LandCruiser

    That’s what you get for buying a car from Chuck Finley.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    great read and glad it ultimately worked out (again, minus aggravation & time).

    As a car guy w/ a young family as well, I certainly can appreciate the need for reliable wheels, but also to save $. I’ve sold 6 vehicles on ebay (for myself & immediate family), dating back to 2000. I’ve yet to buy, though. However, I will always keep tabs on what’s out there, and generally only look within 1-200 miles so I can go drive beforehand. Or look for the auctions where the seller says that if you win and come to pick it up and it’s not as disclosed, you don’t have to buy it (I know that wouldn’t have helped in this case). I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until I end up buying a car on there!

    4 of the 6 buyers of the cars I sold lived within 30 miles of me, so I suspect they had similar feelings as well [the only guy to travel a far distance was buying a 2 yr old vehicle w/ less than 30K on it, so probably felt better about it]

  • avatar
    aristurtle

    For a little while there I thought the story would end with you taking possession of the seller’s BMW.

  • avatar
    Downtown Dan

    Nick, you’re my hero, man– after a recent experience trolling the seedy used-car underworld, I met dozens of Chucks, and now wish that every one of them eventually encounters an aggrieved customer as determined as you.

    (I was hoping the story would end with “Yeah, so I got the title to his 7-Series, put some Alpina wheels on it, and drove it home to my wife.”

  • avatar
    JCraig

    Great article. The Millenia was and still is one of my favorite cars. Hopefully Mazda will get back into the upscale game one day.

  • avatar
    Opus

    Used Millenia?

    NO! CHUCK TESTA!!

  • avatar
    Matt Fink

    Thanks for sharing, great read. I want more ebay stories!

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Great story. I have bought everything from used tractors on ebay to livestock on Craigs list. If you keep the distance in mind it is no more dangerous than buying off car lots.

    Odometer fraud. I bought a plant truck with 20years and 91k. Haven’t made up my mind yet if I was hit with od fraud or not. It caught on fire (right beside the fire station) and when the smoke cleared I had no odometer. Point is, I bought it from a dealer I have known for years. There is no safe used car buy.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    Makes you want to up-Chuck! Epic story and thanks for sharing.

    I’ve bought half dozen cars from auctions and eBay without any problems. I like to look at the BMV registration history to make sure the car is not sittingtoo long. Sitting with no miles means no maintence as most don’t do it on cars in storage. Also the area driven I can see if the car is used for short haul, tough driving cycles, which mean it was used in an urban/surburban area. I prefer a highway driven one with higher miles.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Interesting story, and congratulations for you persistence having been rewarded. The usual E-Bay transaction is with no warranties, express or implied, so if the guy had elected to contest you, you would have been fortunate that he rolled back the odometer. Otherwise, you would have been SOL.

    I really can’t imagine buying a car sight unseen and with no warranty, with having had a mechanic check it out.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    So Lang, in your humble opinion, does the “top rated seller badge” mean anything? The car auctions I’ve seen with it are usually from dealers who do enough business on eBay to warrant a ranking. There must be a little exclusivity because I’ve seen the number of listings for a particular car go from 300 to 52 when hitting the “show only top rated sellers” button.

  • avatar
    MrWhopee

    I would guess that at some point you continue to pursue the case due to your sense of justice (not willing to let a guy who did that to you get away scot-free) rather than with the hope of ever collecting what you’re owed. Either that or you have a lot of faith that in the end the system will work, and you will get what’s due to you. Given the time this case went on, you have a lot of faith in the system. In the end, though, you did get the check. Congratulations! Your faith has served you well!

  • avatar
    carguy

    One of the best TTAC articles ever. An epic tale of fraud and the long road to justice.

  • avatar

    I understand there’s a principle at work, but what value do you assign to your own time?

    A 10 year old Millenia couldn’t have cost that much in the first place, and the total “damages” calculated between the lost residual value and repairs seem like they wouldn’t be worth the effort. What value do you assign to driving 500 miles each way and various phone calls and faxes and applications?

    As much as it’s letting the Bad Guys win, I definitely would’ve written the whole thing off about 15% of the way into your story.

  • avatar
    aunt_slappy

    Excellent story. I admire your perseverance. I’m sure most crooks rely on the fact that most people would give up against such long odds for justice.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    “There is no safe used car buy.”

    I’d say some are safer than others. Like if you bought from 1st owner parents or trusted neighbor.

  • avatar
    mzr

    Great article. I had a ’96 Millenia, and I liked it. Partial to Mazdas, though. I had the garden variety 2.5L, I stayed away from the blown Miller cycle engine. Way too many pitfalls.

  • avatar
    70Cougar

    Nice job getting your money back and great article. You cured me of any inkling of buying a car on eBay.

  • avatar
    NN

    As many of you pointed out, if I assign a dollar value to each minute spent on this case it wouldn’t have made sense. I didn’t look at it as a financial opportunity as much as I did an educational one–a chance for some personal empowerment in learning how the justice system works, and getting some first hand experience. It was well worth it from that standpoint. The sense of justice and the money in the end was obviously nice, but if I had failed I am not certain that I would have considered it time wasted at all. In the end I still would have learned something pretty powerful and I didn’t have to pay much for it.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      And it is a good illustration that one should not buy with seller unseen. I do go out with friends and friends’ friends to help them buy a used car from time to time – and I always start from screening the seller. Poor neighborhood, run down dwellings, shady/evasive seller, etc. – means I will not even touch the car. That does not exclude the ability to notice mechanical imperfections, of course.
      All in all, after a few dozen buys the tactic seems to work – not a single trouble.

  • avatar
    JK43123

    More proof that Carfax isn’t the gospel people think it is. Anything is only as good as the data provided to it.

    John

  • avatar
    Southerner

    Dear Mr. Naylor, Thank you for an informative and lively read. As it unfolded I found myself pulling hard for a happy -read just- ending. I commend you for diligence, persistence and smarts. Congratulations on a successful outcome (such as it is), and a well earned thank you for inflicting on a fraudster all that was possible by law. One hopes that will at least discourage like conduct by this fellow in future. And boy do I applaud your refusal to take “screw you” for an answer.

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    So, in other words, bite the bullet and buy brand-new?

  • avatar
    mkirk

    So CarFax is pretty well useless. They only guarantee against rollback and accident if the rollback and accident damage is already a matter of public record?

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