Offering revenge by proxy
Adrienne Ferguson had retribution on her mind as she made her way along West Jefferson Boulevard clutching a stack of papers.
She wasn’t reacting to a perceived injustice done to her. She was taking action for a stranger who claims to have a beef with the C&H; Auto Center, a small automobile body shop down the street.
Ferguson and a partner operate Alibis & Paybacks, a Los Angeles firm that describes itself as “the ultimate revenge” service, offering paybacks both large and small.
For a fee, for instance, the pair will publicly denounce and embarrass someone or some business, peppering their target’s workplace or neighborhood with fliers that colorfully describe the individual’s purported malfeasance.
That’s how C&H; Auto Center owner Mario Dorantes ended up in Ferguson’s sights.
For the flier targeting the shop, Ferguson used sugar as a metaphor, borrowing the C&H; Sugar logo to assert that her client had been left “bitter” by his experience there. In earthy language, the flier alleged that the shop cheats its customers, something Dorantes strongly denies.
Ferguson and three helpers distributed 100 of the leaflets in a one-block radius around the West Adams district shop. The volunteers -- her 11-year-old son, Jordan Green, and friend Mimi Valentine and her daughter, Geraye, 12 -- placed the fliers on car windshields, behind mailboxes and at front porch doors.
Ferguson and partner Michelle Duke have conducted 20 such “payback blasts” for clients around Los Angeles since launching their business earlier this year.
The two longtime friends from the Baldwin Hills came up with the idea when Ferguson lost her receptionist job and the pair sat down to talk about how they could earn some extra money. Friends and family had long turned to Ferguson and Duke when they needed help pulling a friendly prank, so the women thought they could turn this skill into a business.
They seem intent on making sure the revenge business is also a little sweet. The women crack jokes and burst out in laughter as they work on their various projects, seeming more like two girlfriends than a pair of backroom schemers.
“People trust us. We’re like confidantes,” said Duke, 40, who lives with her husband and four children and works at a real estate office when she isn’t planning retribution. “Adrienne and I are both good at telling people how to deal with situations they’re in.”
“So,” added Ferguson, a 38-year-old divorced mother of two, “instead of looking for a new job in this climate, I decided after I got laid off that we’d push this full-fledged.”
She and Duke printed up business cards and created an Internet website. They acquired a mail drop with a Beverly Hills address, believing the address would give their operation class and cachet.
Friends helped spread the word that the women were ready to send insults flying for fees ranging from $35 to $250. The price depends on the scope and complexity of the “payback.”
They are already getting blowback over their escapades. One resident in Playa del Rey complained to the post office and police when he found a flier advertising Alibis & Paybacks in his mailbox. He told police the mailer was “a dangerous piece that could bring much harm to anyone on the receiving end.”
And some consumer experts said there are better ways to vent frustration than to commission a revenge raid.
“The appropriate avenue, in my mind, is to file a complaint with the business itself or with the Better Business Bureau,” said Bill Mitchell, president of the Better Business Bureau of the Southland. “I think that’s the best way to get affirmative relief. You don’t get that by handing out fliers.”
Then there are the potential legal liabilities. Alibis & Paybacks hasn’t been sued yet by one of its targets. The women don’t contact the targets of the revenge raids in advance to get their side of the dispute but rely on the client’s version of events.
“I ask ‘What is your gripe? What is your complaint?’ ” Ferguson said. “It’s not like I’m making this up. I incorporate what the client tells me.”
So far, they said they have not needed the help of a libel lawyer. Ferguson said she did receive an angry e-mail from one target -- but she simply ignored it. “That’s what the delete button is for.”
But are their clients’ gripes always legitimate?
“We never know that for sure, let’s be honest. But we try to ask a lot of questions. I’d never want to accuse somebody who is being falsely accused,” Duke said. “I’ve turned away a client. The more questions I asked the more it seemed the story wasn’t adding up. If they’re wrong, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Alibis & Paybacks also offers a “lies hotline” service for those who want an excuse to skip work, who need an alibi to give a spouse or who want to break a date “without looking like a flake.” The “cuss-out line” service allows one to anonymously tell another person off. But the revenge flier service is the most popular.
Some involve consumer disputes, but others are more personal. A woman recently hired Alibis & Paybacks to publicly embarrass her ex-husband.
Duke said fliers -- placed around his work and new home -- demanded that the man spend money on his children “instead of strippers.” She said she hopes their work will help the woman’s efforts to receive more child support from her former husband.
Most of the time the leafleting is a quick-hit-and-get-out affair. Once, however, the distributors were still in the area when a man accused of cheating on his girlfriend discovered the fliers and frantically tried to retrieve them from car windshields and street poles outside the other woman’s home. The leaflets suggested the man would be rushing home to his mother after leaving his new squeeze.
“The look on his face was priceless,” Duke said. “He could have had a piece of paper taped to his back saying ‘I’m humiliated.’ ”
In the case of C&H; Auto Center, the dispute grew out of a traffic collision near the body shop that left a Dodge Neon damaged. Its owner had left the sedan with Dorantes to repair. When a disagreement arose over a $35-a-day storage fee for the car, the man hired Alibis & Paybacks to seek vengeance. The client paid $50 for 100 fliers.
As the Alibis & Paybacks team distributed fliers, one grinning passerby, Rene Garcia, stopped to help Ferguson tape a flier to the side of a restaurant. “I think this is a good idea if the place is ripping people off,” said Garcia, a 38-year-old furniture finisher.
Dorantes wasn’t amused, however.
Most of the revenge fliers are designed to be vague enough that their targets to do not know who is complaining, said Ferguson. She and Duke decline to divulge the names of their clients.
But Dorantes said he immediately knew who had commissioned the flier. The Neon, with its left side bashed in from the collision about three months earlier on nearby Farmdale Avenue, was still parked there.
“It’s a lie,” he said of the flier’s assertions. “We heard the accident from inside here and went out to help. . . . I’ve owned this shop for 20 years without complaints.”
Dorantes said that when the owner’s insurance company declared the Neon a total loss and sent the owner a check, the man returned to the shop, handed Dorantes the car’s pink slip, removed its stereo radio and left.
He said the man’s insurer so far has not reimbursed him for the car rental or the daily storage fee, which now totals $500. “I’ve been paid nothing,” Dorantes said.
Before leaving the shop to rip down the fliers posted along the street outside, Dorantes was already planning his own revenge.
“I’m going to sue these guys,” he said, tapping his finger on the Alibis & Paybacks logo at the bottom of the flier.