Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2014

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RED TAPE CHRONICLES:

California’s long arm reaches into bank account

A routine check of my bank account on Oct. 12, a Sunday, yielded a nasty surprise.

Someone had removed $358 without my permission.

Anxiety gave way to indignation the next day when I called the bank and discovered the perpetrator was California, a state I thought I had left behind when I moved to Nevada more than a year before.

California’s Franchise Tax Board, on behalf of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, had ordered Wells Fargo to hand over $258 of my money to pay overdue vehicle registration fees. The bank had charged me another $100 to process the transaction.

Never mind that I had left the state, or that within weeks of taking up residence in Nevada in August 2007, I got a new driver’s license, changed my car insurance and paid $261 to register my Toyota Camry here.

After trading in my bland California plates for the cute ones from Nevada featuring snow-capped mountains, I assumed the Golden State would get the message that I was gone — a costly mistake.

On Monday, Oct. 13, after getting off the phone with Wells Fargo, I dialed California’s DMV, only to find it was closed for Columbus Day. Nevada’s employees, however, didn’t get the day off, so I was able to find out from a DMV representative here what had happened to the California plates I had surrendered. He told me that instead of sending them back West, the department recycled them to create new Nevada tags.

A grueling Tuesday in the newsroom kept me from resuming my quest to recover my money.

But my fury and frustration stayed with me throughout the day, and in the wee hours of the following morning, I awoke, panicked, from a dream about the DMV. As I lay in bed, sullen, seething in the dark, I wondered. The people trying to sell me an extended warranty for my car call me at work, harass me on my cell phone, fill my Henderson mailbox with tantalizing offers I turn down repeatedly.

So why couldn’t the DMV have hunted me down too before taking my money? California’s efforts to find me apparently consisted of delivering notices to the San Bernardino tract home where I no longer lived.

I accept blame for my predicament. I should have told the DMV I had moved. Still, I wanted my $358 back.

On Oct. 15, I finally reached California’s DMV and explained that I had left the state long before February 2008, when my vehicle registration there expired. A technician told me she would put a note in my file saying as much and that I would get a refund of $258 in six to eight weeks.

The $100 bank fee, on the other hand, seems gone for good. The folks at Wells Fargo said they would reverse the charge if the tax board notified them that it had issued the levy against me in error.

The DMV and California Franchise Tax Board people, however, said they had made no mistake.

On Oct. 22, out of paranoia, I called the tax board to make sure I would be getting the $258 refund.

When I relayed my story to a collector, he told me his division would send a fax to Wells Fargo telling them not to remove funds from my account, a solution the DMV representative I spoke to the week before had not suggested. Apparently, banks hold money for several days before handing it over to levying agencies.

For a happy but brief few days, I considered the issue resolved. The following week, however, I noticed that the $258 had not been returned to my account.

I called Wells Fargo and found out the bank had sent my money to California on Oct. 22, before receiving the fax instructing it not to.

So I contacted the DMV once more to ask when I might see my refund. Six to eight weeks, I was told again. Maybe sooner.

The technician I spoke to gave me another surprise. He said on Oct. 6, my $85 state tax refund had also been garnished to pay my vehicle registration though I “owed” only $258.

“It looks like more money was taken than needed,” he said.

In the 2007-08 fiscal year, California’s Franchise Tax Board issued 14,349 bank levies and 266,219 wage levies to recover nearly $30 million from debtors owing vehicle registration fees. Even so, a board spokeswoman says what happened to me was unusual.

I believe her, but I know I’m not alone.

Not long after I moved to Nevada, a friend told me the California DMV had dipped into her brother’s private bank account to pay for his vehicle registration after he had relocated to Arizona in 2004. He had made the same mistake I did — not informing California of his departure.

“What a nightmare, huh? They screwed me completely,” he e-mailed me recently.

• • •

About 24,000 or so California expats turned their driver’s licenses over to Nevada last year in Clark County. More people move here from the Golden State than from any other.

Except for the $100 bank fee, I should be getting everything back. But I don’t feel happy or victorious. The time I spent on the phone trying to resolve these problems robbed me of any potential satisfaction.

The hold music, the busy signals I got when I called the DMV, the woman’s voice telling me “we are experiencing a high volume of calls at this time” — I am fearful I’ll hear these things in my troubled sleep.

To California, I have only this to say: You and I spent a great decade together, but I’m ready to move on.

Please, just let me go.

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