He feels scalped by fraud, skinned by collections


The whole crazy mess started, according to Ben Bennani, with a wayward hairpiece. Which means, I guess, that vanity is the real culprit in our tale of a guy who, in the simple pursuit of a better look, finds himself, six years later, with a sad story to tell.

The thing is, Bennani says, it’s not like he couldn’t cope with baldness, which began its relentless assault in his 30s. Still, by 2001, when he was 50, he didn’t like mirrors. So when he saw a magazine ad about a laser surgery technique for permanent hair replacement -- and when friends said it might whack some years off his appearance -- Bennani bit.

That’s a good story all by itself, but it’s only the first act in an extended drama that Bennani says began as merely wanting to right a wrong.


Bennani flew to Philadelphia in August 2001 for the procedure to redo his hairless dome with something more substantial. He didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t some glue and a hairpiece, which is what he says he got. And certainly not for the $1,700 he put on his Advanta Bank credit card before the procedure began.

However, he liked the new brown hair that adorned his head. For a while.

Within an hour after the procedure, he says, his head itched. The hair people warned of possible discomfort for a day or so, like someone with new shoes. But when Bennani shampooed that first day to ease the itching, he couldn’t help but notice something that contradicted the sales promise of a permanent replacement: his hair was moving.

He returned to the company the next day, he says, and asked for a refund. Company execs were cordial and offered to mail him a replacement, but Bennani declined. Three thousand miles from his Orange County home, all he wanted, he says, was the refund of his $1,700.

We now turn the page to the second chapter: The hair company turned out to be a fraud. Based on other complaints, a Philadelphia TV station reported on it and described it as a company “that glues cheap toupees to bald men’s heads.”

In March 2003, Bennani won a $9,000 settlement against it, but the company had long since vanished. Needless to say, it never credited the $1,700 to his account. Which brings us to Act III.

Bennani says he notified Advanta almost immediately of the scam. In time, he believed, it would relieve him of his $1,700 burden as credit card fraud. That’s not how Advanta saw it, and when six months passed and Bennani was refusing to pay down any of the $1,700, the company contacted a collection company.


Several collectors got onto the case, Bennani says, and began calling him at various times during the day, sometimes as early as 5 a.m.

In August 2003 -- two years after his trip to Philly and by then sick of collectors -- Bennani sued them and the bank for harassment. On the advice of a paralegal who Bennani later learned had been disbarred, he asked for $10,000 in damages.

That introduced John Guerrini into Bennani’s life. He is a Pasadena lawyer representing the bank and collectors and who concluded that Bennani was way off base.

“I remember my first phone call from Mr. Bennani,” Guerrini says. “I said, ‘What are you suing us for? You didn’t even pay the (credit card) charge.’ ”

If you thought the case would have ended before lunch, you’d have been right -- if that lunch had been scheduled for four years in the future.

Believe it or not, the case continues today.

Along the way, Bennani has represented himself in court most of the time, filed tons of paperwork and rejected Guerrini’s offer at one point of $2,500 that would put an end to things.


What Bennani never grasped, Guerrini says, is that credit card fraud doesn’t include unfortunate buying choices.

“No credit card company is a guarantor of quality,” he says. “When I use my MasterCard and purchase a meal at McDonald’s and I don’t like it, I can’t call MasterCard up and say I want them to reverse the charge. I sue McDonald’s and say I got a bean in my hamburger or a rock in my Coke. That’s what people do.”

Bennani tried. But when the hair people vanished, he believed Advanta had an obligation -- once it established that his purchase was from a fraudulent company and that he’d returned the product -- to purge the $1,700 charge.

He believed it so much that he wouldn’t let go.

Even when, perhaps, he should have. He filed complaints, reported missing documents from his court filings, lost and then won rulings on whether he owed attorney costs. He says it’s crazy that a case that began with $1,700 of bad hair resulted in the bank paying its attorneys more than $70,000.

Guerrini probably agrees, but notes that Bennani was the conductor of the train.

Along the way, an Orange County judge tossed out his damage suit. Bennani says it was on a technicality.

Spared from the attorneys’ fees, Bennani remains on the hook for $6,400 in court costs stemming from his suit. In addition, he says, he’s spent $10,000 for legal costs.


I had to ask Bennani, 56, married, father of two and the owner of a Costa Mesa car rental company, if it’s been worth it.

I understand the original principle, I tell him, but if he could do it all again?

“My ego got in the way and my frustration with the collection agencies,” he says. “They hammered me really hard. I was not going to put up with it.”

In a more reflective moment, he says he should have taken the $2,500 offer. The paralegal, he says, convinced him the bank would pay the full $10,000 rather than go to trial.

Bennani sees this as the little guy against the big guys. And, in a way that he still believes, as a fight for principle.

“My case was black and white,” he says. “It was a scam, I shouldn’t have to pay $1,700, because I did everything according to the book. Things got out of hand with the collection agency and I was harassed by them, and I had bad advisors.”

He comforts himself somewhat by noting that he never paid the $1,700 charge.

“My accomplishment,” he says with a rueful half-smile.

Guerrini says he doesn’t think Bennani’s delinquent bill ever was reported to credit bureaus.


“I can’t tell you how many times I took him aside and said, ‘Why aren’t you taking my money?’ ” Guerrini says. “I didn’t see him as greedy at all. I felt sorry for him.”

The case apparently has one final step -- an as-yet-unscheduled court date to decide Bennani’s obligation for the $6,400 in court costs.

Bennani is hopeful. Either way, he hopes to write about his experiences. And on the side, he says, he’s developing his own hair-restoration product. And, pointing to some strands that exist where none once did, he says, it’s working.


Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana An archive of his recent columns is at