Righting wrongs by mail -- jokes do the job

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If your used car drops a bumper as you turn out of the dealer's lot or the service at a ''four-star'' restaurant turns out to be more glitter than gold, Rent-a-Kvetch is there to help.

This 18-month-old letter-writing service in New York City will blast off a humorous and pungent letter to the offending party and most often will get the refund, the apology - and possibly a chuckle - out of the recipient.

For $35 a letter, plus 10 percent of any cash settlement over $250, the founder and president of Rent-a-Kvetch, B.L. Ochman, will tackle most grievances. And in 95 percent of the cases, Ms. Ochman says, she succeeds.

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Kvetch, a noun and verb of Yiddish origin, is loosely defined as ''to complain,'' or ''complainer.'' In German it means ''to squeeze'' - a pretty good definition, according to Ms. Ochman.

But she says that humor is her best tool. ''The letters are sent out on Rent-a-Kvetch letterhead, which has a cartoon of me, so we hope that people start out the letter smiling. We appeal to people's better nature. There is usually something funny about the situation and we play that up.''

Theodore Roosevelt was her precedent, she says. ''He used to write nasty letters, stick them in a drawer, then write the diplomatic letter.'' She started out writing angry letters, too, she says, but evolved into funnier ones after discovering that ''honey really was more effective than vinegar.''

Ms. Ochman has an arsenal of tart rebukes for those occasions when honey or humor won't work. She recounts one client, a widow, who plunked down a $350 deposit on a $1,000 fee to a singles organization that promised to introduce her to one member of the opposite sex every month for a year. After six months passed with no introductions, she appealed to Ms. Ochman to get her out of a contract that stipulated no refunds. The last line of the kvetching letter: ''How do you think you're going to sound in court after this sad widow tells her tale?'' The lady got her money back in 48 hours, Ms. Ochman says.

Sometimes a letter isn't even needed. A New Jersey man started receiving letters from a department store demanding payment of a balance of $00.00. The store turned the case over to a collection agency. His call to Rent-a-Kvetch netted this successful advice: Write them a check for $00.00.

Part of the two-person Rent-a-Kvetch's high success rate is that many requests are turned down. ''We only take those we can help. If the grievance happened 10 years ago - forget it,'' Ms. Ochman says. Documentation is vital; the customer has to be able to prove the case with a canceled check or a receipt.

Most of her clients, she says, sound like young career people - she doesn't know for sure because she never meets them. Many are middle to upper class, but ''we get a real cross section, lots of blacks, Hispanics, and elderly.'' Bosses frequently have their secretaries call to request letters, and there was an executive stampede for gift certificates.

Ms. Ochman says she never planned this new career (she continues to run a public-relations firm). At a party a friend beseeched her to write a letter to a razor company because a razor she'd just bought fell apart before she had a chance to use it. ''You're so good at writing letters,'' the friend said. Ms. Ochman said, ''what am I - Rent-a-Kvetch?'' Lightbulb . . .

''One afternoon, when I had nothing to do, I wrote a press release about this new 'company.' '' Much to her amazement the news syndication services picked up the story immediately and soon magazines and radio programs were hounding her for interviews - all before she'd had her first customer. ''It all took about 10 days. I asked my lawyer what to do. 'Incorporate.' ''

For those outside New York who are too busy or timid to take on the landlord, the phone, or utility companies, Ms. Ochman has set up a franchise in Atlanta. Since that population might not be familiar with Yiddish, she renamed the service ''Hyper-Griper.'' Rent-a-Kvetch International is on the drawing boards for London, and Ms. Ochman is ''negotiating'' franchises in Boston and Detroit.

Why Detroit? ''They have a lot to complain about in Detroit right now,'' Ms. Ochman says.

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