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Choosing a Mechanic Still a Dicey Proposition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To protect consumers against fraud, California’s Bureau of Automotive Repair shuts down hundreds of shops every year and revokes the business licenses of their owners.

In most cases, the owners are out of the auto repair business and the garage location is taken over by a new operator that has no connection with past management. But it doesn’t always work out quite so neatly, BAR officials acknowledge.

A crooked operator may use a “front” to obtain a new license while continuing to run the garage behind the scenes. In many cases, the employees who worked under the previous operator will continue to ply their trades under new management. And it is even possible for a former owner to end up as an employee, effectively managing the new operation.

“The legal actions are against the entity, not the people,” explained Allen Wood, BAR’s director of consumer protection. “Nothing in the law prevents an owner from working at the shop after his license is revoked. Most of the time it doesn’t happen. They don’t have to list employees when they apply for a license.”

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Indeed, BAR investigators conducted a sting operation against Encino Body Works in 1997, alleging that the shop charged for new parts that were never installed on a state-owned car. BAR later revoked its license in a default judgment.

When The Times contacted the shop earlier this year for a story, it discovered that the two former owners were working at the shop, even answering the telephone to handle customer calls. The new owner, they said, was unavailable.

Wood said that in other cases, BAR investigators have chased fly-by-night owners all over the state, as they set up shops that defraud customers and then move on to new locations.

“Can somebody sneak through the system? Yes,” Wood said. “I am the first to admit that we get people who sneak through the system with phony names. We have a family that we chased all over the state for the last 20 years. They set up shops in San Diego, San Clemente, Sacramento, Fairfield, Fresno.”

At least Californians have BAR, widely regarded as one of the toughest and most far-reaching automobile consumer agencies in the country.

The bureau files about 400 cases of civil fraud annually against auto shops in California, 180 leading to the filing of criminal charges. License applications to BAR sometimes run 5 inches thick, and they get a thorough review, Wood asserts.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, we are operating at a 9,” Wood said.

But still the complaints come.

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Abdelrazzo Zaghloul says he runs an honest body shop that attracts loyal patrons, performs professional work and gives customers a square deal.

But before he moved into the shop in Canoga Park two years ago, it was in the spotlight for shoddy practices under previous owners Pak Kwang and Magdy M. Thabet.

BAR shut down the operation and revoked their license. Allegations of consumer fraud at the shop, Canoga Park Auto Body, were even featured on the ABC television newsmagazine “20/20.”

Zaghloul, who goes by “AZ,” opened the new shop at the same address under a similar name, Canoga Park Auto Works, in January 2000. He moved from another location and kept several of the employees who had worked for Kwang and Thabet.

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Perhaps coincidentally, consumer issues continue to dog AZ, who was found in violation of three consumer protection laws by BAR, including failure to provide a customer with a written estimate.

When BAR officials visited the shop one day, they found Kwang hanging around, AZ acknowledged. Kwang was only picking up his mail, AZ said, but BAR officials told him Kwang would have to get out and stay out.

The problem, AZ said, stems from the previous owners and their dissatisfied customers, who now want to press claims against him. He said the BAR violations resulted from a woman whose car was left at the lot for two years.

“I released the car without getting paid for it,” AZ said. “I lost $3,000 on the advice of BAR.”

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AZ has found himself in another tangled mess with automotive detailer Kevin Reflow, who alleges that the shop botched repairs to his 1998 Chevrolet S-10 pickup.

Reflow said the paint job the shop gave his Chevy, which he describes as a show truck that has won awards, was defective. The brake lights didn’t work afterward. AZ also repaired body parts but charged for new replacement parts, Reflow said.

Reflow said he filed a complaint with BAR, though under state regulations the bureau can neither confirm nor deny it is investigating the matter.

AZ denies all of Reflow’s allegations, saying that the pickup truck is hardly a show vehicle and that Reflow hauls 42-gallon drums of water in it for his detailing business.

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“It is part of my life to have to deal with Kevin Reflow,” AZ said.

The moral of this story is to exercise caution in selecting a garage or mechanic. Look for established shops with long histories in the same location. Seek references or advice from people you know.

And most of all, be familiar with your rights under California law and the information available to you as a motorist. In the last two months, BAR has given consumers a powerful new tool, posting auto repair shop licensing and violation information on its Web site at www .smogcheck.ca.gov.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph .vartabedian@latimes.com.


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