Small Claims Court Winners Having Trouble Collecting Money From Elusive "Spa Man"

The story of Craig Hueffner, a man who sold spas with hefty rebates that weren’t honored, is a good reminder of the limits of small claims court: namely that if the defendent plays dirty, it may be a long, expensive task to make him pay up.

“People think when they come to court that they are going to get instant relief,” said Judge Rebecca Dallet of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court. “We can give what the law allows, but we have no way of getting the money for them. I don’t think people realize that.”

In two stories over the past few days, Ellen Gabler of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has tried to track down Craig Hueffner, who has sold spas through the Wisconsin State Fair for most of the past 11 years. There’s a fairground pavilion named after him, and his caricature is painted on it. His brother was even present this year selling spas. But many customers have had trouble getting Hueffner to pay contractually obligated rebates (which he offered even when he knew that the company behind the rebates was having financial problems)—and it seems no one can track him down, because he repeatedly gives incorrect addresses and contact information.

Those who’ve tried to sue Hueffner in small claims court say he’s an expert at wriggling out of his responsibility to pay. He lists different addresses and different business names to avoid being served with court papers, they say, and he stalls in court.

After the first article appeared, some customers were given a lucky break—Hueffner’s real address—but Hueffner may have frustrated and exhausted the couple to the point that they’re giving up:

After Sunday’s P.I. story appeared, Albert and Sally Merschdorf received a call from someone who knew Hueffner’s home address. The Merschdorfs gave up trying to sue Hueffner last October after they said they spent at least $300 and many hours trying to track him down and serve him with court papers.

“At this point, I don’t know if it’s going to do me any good,” Albert Merschdorf said of Hueffner’s address. “It’s frustrating getting it now, rather than when we were trying to serve him (with court papers.)”

There’s not much you can do to help track down Hueffner, but you can ask Bob Lauter, the CEO of Master Spas, whether or not he’s still doing business with Hueffner even after knowing what he’s been doing to customers. Lauter told the paper that he’d investigate, but then fell silent and stopped returning calls:

Craig Hueffner worked as an independent dealer of Master Spas, a brand of hot tubs sold by the Fort Wayne, Ind., company.

Bob Lauter, CEO of Master Spas, said he knew Hueffner had run into trouble with the rebate program but said he didn’t know about the judgments against Hueffner or customer complaints. He also said his company hadn’t sold Hueffner products in six months.

“We have to look at this, re-evaluate it, and probably terminate him as a dealer,” Lauter said. “I don’t want our customers to be involved with that.”

Three weeks later, however, Lauter wouldn’t return repeated calls, so Public Investigator could not confirm whether Hueffner was terminated as a dealer.

Here’s Master Spas’ contact info:

Master Spas
6927 Lincoln Parkway
Fort Wayne, IN 46804
260-436-9100

“Spa dealer elusive in paying court-ordered debts” [JS Online]
“‘Spa Man’ still elusive, even at home “ [JS Online] (Thanks to !)
(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. ViperBorg says:

    Hey, here’s another candidate to get Dick Fuld-ed.

  2. Xerloq says:

    I’ve always been a fan of paying the Sheriff’s Office $25 to march over to the place of business (or residence if applicable) with court orders to seize property to be auctioned to pay the fines/awards.

    Guess you have to know where the guy is to do that, though.

  3. Baron Von Crogs says:

    Don’t some states award triple damages for failure to pay? I know that I’ve been told (from work) its very important we pay any small claims cases we loose because depending on the jurisdiction we may wind up paying alot more in the end for not paying whats owed asap.

    • Pylon83 says:

      @BaronVonCrogs:
      I’d be really surprised if this was the case in more than a minority of jurisdictions. Generally you can get the costs associated with collecting added to the judgment without problem, but I can’t imagine many places allow for statutorily trebled damages for failure to pay. How would this effect people who simply couldn’t pay?

  4. jpdanzig says:

    It is unclear from this piece if the dealer represented ONLY Master Spas. If so, I think MS needs to stand behind its dealer’s rebate program, even if he was an independent agent.

  5. BigSlowTarget says:

    So here’s a question. Assume for a moment that the spa market in Indiana is pretty much toast. This guy’s long running business is going down (no doubt there really, he’s hiring his brother to do the selling and the manufacturer hasn’t sold to him in months) and he has no cash, minimal assets (mostly probably mostly hard to sell spas) and lots of outstanding debts including customer rebates.

    In that situation if you are the guy who do you pay first? If you use the cash to pay employees (ok – excluding your brother) and suppliers business might recover, but if the cash goes elsewhere you’re immediately toast. Pretty much by definition you have more owed than owned so you could declare bankruptcy and let customers/employees/suppliers/banks get the assets which they will be able to auction off to get pennies on their debt dollars.

    So, what do Consumerist readers recommend – do you delay every payment, try to pull things back on track and pay everyone in the end or do you say ‘screw it,’ go bankrupt and walk away?

    Note: I have no idea if this is the case for the spa man, but it is possible. It is also possible he looted all the cash from a profitable business and burned it on hookers and blow. The continued big rebate program if he knew he could never pay the rebates was fraud and certainly has criminal implications.

    • NightSteel says:

      @BigSlowTarget:

      Uh.. you declare bankruptcy. Simple. When your liabilities are greater than your assets, you declare. You don’t keep selling things, stiffing people, and pocketing the extra money. You stop doing business. (Unless you’re a megacorporation. Then you ‘restructure’ once a court says you don’t have to pay your debts.)

    • m4ximusprim3 says:

      @BigSlowTarget: 1) Communicate with your debtors. Explain, ask for an extension of terms with interest, and then if they still come after you, declare bankruptcy.

      simple, and time tested.

    • BigSlowTarget says:

      @BigSlowTarget: Ok – so Bankruptcy is the right way to go. If you are a creditor of the guy (say he owes you a rebate) can’t you file an involuntary bankruptcy petition against him? Checking random web search result #1 it seems that you might need more than one creditor to do it, but it sounds like he has scammed multiple people.

  6. JohnMc says:

    One’s ability to act after a judgement depends on the state. Here in Texas all I can do is collect. To force someone to do something requires one to file in superior court.

    The elusive person has a presence somewhere. First stop — Clerk of Court. If one has as business legally they have to file for a license and DBA possibly. That address should be accurate. You might have to go back to court but you could get a writ for seizure to satisfy the judgment. With writ in hand and constable in tow seize assets.

    When one cannot conduct business the recalcitrant usually get very cooperative and will pay you off. Sounds like a lot of hassle and it is.

  7. FDCPAGuy says:

    Hey I could drive by and see what’s at this address…

  8. juri squared says:

    You can also do what companies do and sell the debt to a debt collector. I don’t know how much they pay on the dollar, but it’s more than zero.

    • Pylon83 says:

      @jurijuri:
      You have to be owed a fairly substantial amount of money to find an interested collector. One or two thousand, for a one-time only account, is likely insufficient to garner any interest from any of those places.

      • @Pylon83:

        You will find a debt collector to accept your case…. the quality of the collector will be suspect at best, but it will be a debt collector….. especially one of those $ up front kind of debt collectors.

      • esd2020 says:

        @Pylon83: That’s not true at all. My former employer used a collection agency for all hard to collect debts, even just $40. Of course the agency took something like 50%, but you only have to pay if you collect…

        Nothing to lose if you’ve already written it off.

        • Pylon83 says:

          @esd2020:
          Did you former employer use them frequently? If so, that makes sense. But I assure you that they won’t take a one time $40 collection.

          • shepd says:

            @Pylon83: I’ve used a debt collector for a one time collection at my business. It was for $75, and they offered the paltry sum of 10%. I took it because the customer had purposely stiffed us after we had specifically done work on their site. While they watched, all the while obviously not intending to pay.

            Since we were just working on a new house they had bought (mortgaged, I assume) and they had a broken down car, we figure they’d pay up. The didn’t. I wonder if they’d ever managed to get anything on credit since… Oh well. Pay your damn bills, or at least give good excuses why you can’t instead of laughing at the workers!

            • johnnya2 says:

              @shepd: A $75 item on a credit report will do very little to hurt your credit if all your other credit is ok. I have a $9 item from Sprint on mine from 3 years ago, and it has never stopped anything.

    • @jurijuri:

      The amount ranges from flat fees (usually quite substantial and will be prepaid {by the debt holder} or drawn from the first amount collected) to 40 or even 60% of the amount to be collected. Even the high % collection types will want a minimal amount.

  9. Snarkysnake says:

    I frequently have to sue deadbeat co-signers (I’m in the bail bond business) and I use debt collectors for that purpose. They generally won’t get all excited for any debt less than a couple of grand,and then they buy it for 50 cents on the dollar. I make it very easy for them to collect IF they find the person ,because I send them a copy of the judgement against the debtor and they just run with it.The nuclear option is to run up a lot of fees and expenses and then send them a 1099 form for a large figure of forgiven debt and let them try to hide from the IRS. I only do this for hardcore deadbeats. Serves the bastards right

  10. dakker says:

    If you’ve sued and won already another form of recourse you have is to get his drivers license suspended until he pays you.

  11. shepd says:

    OMG I’m commenting! But, depending on where you live, you don’t have to spend time tracking the person down like this. In Ontario, CA (that’s the one with the snow, not the place near the surf) you “serve” papers by sending them to whatever address you have on file via unregistered mail (yes, NON-registered, beats me why… ’tis what the courthouse told me) to them. After 45 days you may then sign an affidavit stating you served them in this manner and if they don’t show up in court it’s assumed they chose not to show up, and assuming you can prove your case, you win. You can then put liens on various things they own (up to and including their house if the amount warrants it) if they refuse to pay, after going to court for the liens, of course…

    I understand this sort of insanity for criminal charges, but for small claims, you shouldn’t have to chase anyone down.

  12. Spa rebate, is it? Why, couldn’t they simply ask AIG to cut them a check? I hear spas are in over there.

  13. factotum says:

    Zaba Search for starters: [www.zabasearch.com]

    Note, especially, the 1021 BREENS BAY RD, OCONOMOWOC, WI 53066 address

    Click the sat map and zoom in. Note how it looks larger than the surrounding homes and recently remodeled? Like a house someone of means would want to live in. Use the dumps for registering the business…

    Anyone here live in 53066?

    • scoosdad says:

      @factotum: The aerial views frequently have the address mis-placed on the photos. My home address shows up on the map about a quarter of a mile away from where my house actually sits on the street.

      I’ve checked friends and family addresses and found about a 50% correct location rate.

      Now if you had a Google street view and could see a house number or name/number on a mailbox, that’s different.

  14. vastrightwing says:

    It’s true. My wife got scammed by a co. refusing to pay her. I went to small claims and won a judgment. Next I had to go back and ask for a “Capias” (a civil arrest warrant) and then go to the Sheriff’s office to try and collect. This all took about a year. In the end, I got the guy to pay up. The irony is that I collected not because of the court (he didn’t care), but as soon as I started calling his creditors, he got nervous.

  15. yellowspaced says:

    I have had that issue before, all i did was go put a lean on everything i could find that they owned. took a few years but when they tried to refinance their house i got my money.

    You can also put in a wage garnishment, but in some cases work places don’t always comply.

  16. sounds2good says:

    “It is also possible he looted all the cash from a profitable business and burned it on hookers and blow.”

    BINGO!! Oh, and the World Poker Tour as well. (Ain’t Google great?) Addictions are a bio tch, but having the advantage of using phony rebates to steal an exaggerated piece of the spa pie for about 5 years kept the addictions well fed. Then, when that crucial rebate advantage was taken away, the world came crashing down very quickly. Finding Craig Hueffner is easy. Just gotta head over to the CCAP website, [wcca.wicourts.gov] and search his name and maybe “master spas*” and “spaman*”. Tons of good info there. The wrongful death suit filed against him will be interesting to watch as well. Or, you could just drive around Franklin or Greendale a bit till you see his big black SPAMAN 2 Hummer and follow him home. It’s too bad that so many people got suckered by him, but much of this info has been readily available for years now, so it’s hard to explain all the suckers – people are just too trusting sometimes and too lazy to do their homework. Also, those rebates were just ridiculous. Talk about “if it sounds too good to be true”…, well duh!! Didn’t anybody read the fine print on those things? It frickin’ said basically nothing was guaranteed, but people just kept believing that they’d basically get ALL their money back (or at least a few grand) 3 years after their purchase. Hello??? It’s a shame, truly, but it’s hard to blame the scammer 100% for that. I guess that’s why Obama has followers dumb enough to believe that 95% of them will get a tax cut. Oh well. People have to actually use their brains these days. Until more people do, POSs like Craig the Spaman will pop up with more and more regularity.