A local firm that advertises itself as the panacea for parking-ticket-laden Washington motorists, and has garnered much publicity in the process, has been charged with violating consumer protection laws and has lost its privileged status with the D.C. Department of Transportation.
Humiliation Elimination Inc. (HEI) has been accused of overcharging its customers and of failing to pay the D.C. government for parking tickets after it charged its members' credit cards for them.
HEI, which advertised it would send a chauffeured, champagne-laden limousine to assist its members whose cars were booted or towed, get the boots removed in an hour and quickly retrieve towed vehicles, is now under attack on several fronts.
Lincoln Bouve, HEI's founder and president, acknowledged last weekend that the company is moribund. Although the firm no longer is seeking new clients, Bouve pledged that it will give current members whatever services it could or offer dues refunds.
The company has lost its privileged status with DOT--under which boots would be removed after only a telephone call from HEI--because it failed to pay its bills promptly. According to several sources, it also has lost the right to use several credit cards to bill its clients because of cardholder complaints.
A spokeswoman at American Express Co. in New York confirmed that HEI's rights to accept the card had been cancelled in February, but would not say why.
But Bouve denied the claim and produced what he said was HEI's current American Express authorization number, by which the firm gets approvals for charges to cardholders' accounts.
Bouve also challenged DOT's claim that he was late in paying his bills. "We've been caught in a political brouhaha," he said. "The city let us down . . ."
According to a case brought by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, HEI actually charges $45 a year for membership, $10 more than advertised, and then tacks on an unannounced $25 "first-time-use fee."
HEI, which found most of its clients by employing youths on bicycles to place circulars on the windshields of cars found immobilized with "Denver boots," offers to save members the hassles of freeing booted cars or retrieving those towed from restricted zones; members also can pay parking tickets by calling the company.
On an average day, DOT crews boot up to 90 cars whose owners have outstanding parking tickets, tow another 125, and write out up to 5,000 parking tickets.
Waiting lines at DOT are long enough to have created their own legends, because, under D.C. policy, all fines must be paid in person by cash or credit card.
However, members of HEI are supposed to be able to resolve their problems simply by calling the company, which charges the tickets and fines to its members' credit cards and sends its employes to DOT to pay the fines. A limousine is supposed to be available weekday afternoons to offer rides home to miscreant motorists.
HEI's problems with DCRA began when Judith A. Fisher joined after finding a boot on her car one afternoon, and an ad from HEI promising quick resolution for her problems.
Fisher, a vice president at Middlesex Research Center in Georgetown, joined in spite of the higher-than-advertised fees. Over the next few months, she called HEI to pay for seven new parking tickets she received. Her credit card statements showed charges to HEI for the tickets.
But one June day, she again found a boot locking her wheels in place. Fisher said DOT records showed that none of the seven tickets she had been billed for by HEI had been paid.
"I was so angry," Fisher said. "The next morning I went to three different addresses contained in various ads to find them, and I couldn't find any trace of them."
She then filed a complaint with DCRA. While the agency's staff had worked up a consent decree under which HEI would pay Fisher $190, Adminstrative Law Judge Sharon T. Nelson rejected the decree and lowered Fisher's award to $80, but ordered HEI to refund all overcharges to all of its members, variously estimated between 300 and 2,000.
HEI was formed in early 1981 after Bouve, a local writer and producer, had spent several hours in line at DOT trying to free his booted car for the third time in 14 months. After initial success, Bouve opened a similar firm in Boston in 1981; that branch was never as successful as the one in Washington, and Bouve said it also is going out of business.
Bouve said it was the DOT revocation of HEI's ability to get boots removed by telephone that broke the business; he said only a swift turnaround by DOT could save HEI, a move he called quite unlikely.
In an earlier interview, Bouve said his firm freed most cars in less than an hour, compared to the more than three hours of waiting in line it takes the average motorist. "It makes it almost enjoyable to get towed," he said. "The system has screwed you and you are saying, 'Take that!' "