MUSKEGON, Mich. – When Melinda Gutierrez, a mother of two from Muskegon, finally found the perfect car for her in a post on Craigslist, it was almost too good to be true.
Several months and hundreds of dollars later, Melinda is realizing that’s exactly what it was.
In early December, 2015, Melinda hit the internet in search of a new car. With a busy schedule and a growing family, she needed something reliable.
“Something I can depend on,” she said, “you know, drive my kids around in. Just seeing that one – I fell in love with it.”
The car she fell in love with was a 2005 Chrysler. It was in good condition, low mileage, and exactly what Melinda was in search of. So she reached out to the poster, who turned out to be 32-year-old Justin Langeland of Muskegon. Langeland had a spotty past that included two felony fraud arrests in the same year. Melinda didn’t know that though when she met up with him just days after responding to his add.
On their first meet up, Justin asked for $300 down in cash, which Melinda gladly paid.
“I gave him the 300 cash,” she said. “He said he would hold the car for me because he had someone else interested in it.”
A few days later, Melinda and Langeland met up again – this time Langeland sought $500 from her for what he said was going towards paperwork on the car. Melinda, slightly more skeptical this time, agreed nonetheless. Each time, the two signed paperwork and exchanged licenses, but when it finally came time for Melinda and Langeland to meet up a final time for the exchange and finalized payment, Langeland gave excuse after excuse before finally cutting off contact altogether.
“I would text him, nothing. I would call, nothing,” said Melinda. “He really ripped me off.”
Melinda filed a small claims suit against Langeland, but on the day of the hearing, he failed to appear. The judge ruled in Melinda’s favor by default, but Melinda worried she still may never see that money.
“I’m out 800 dollars,” she said. “That’s something I could’ve used towards my kids or something else - my house. I’m angry and kind of sad. I don’t understand why he would do that to somebody. I mean, we all work hard for our money.”
Making the situation even worse: days after Langeland failed to appear in court, Melinda found something troubling online while browsing for other car options.
“I’m looking for cars, browsing through Craigslist,” she said, “and sure enough [the post] was there again. So that’s what made me more angry. He was trying to rip somebody else off.”
That’s when Melinda reached out to the FOX 17 Problem Solvers. We got in touch with Langeland, making our own inquiry about the Chrysler in question. Even though we knew Langeland had Melinda’s $800, he still told us no one had put money down on the vehicle. So we scheduled a meet up with him, but it didn’t last long. The moment we confronted Langeland, he took off. Minutes later, he contacted the Problem Solvers, saying he wished to make it right by paying the family back.
After speaking with Melinda late Monday, we learned that Justin has wired Melinda the money he owes her.
In the meantime, Melinda says she’s using this as a learning experience, and is encouraging others to be wary of shopping on classified sites like Craigslist.
“Just be aware,” she cautions. “Don’t trade without getting something in return, don’t give cash without getting something in return.”
For a more comprehensive set of recommendations on protecting yourself from this type of activity, you can reference the Better Business Bureau’s tips for online shopping safety.