Sears bilked auto repair customers in Calif., investigators charge Undercover probe prompts state's move to revoke licenses of Sears' 70 repair shops.


LOS ANGELES -- The state Department of Consumer Affairs will seek revocation today of Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s license to perform automobile repairs in California, charging the nation's second-largest retailing chain with systematically bilking consumers, officials said yesterday.

The move could put Sears out of the auto-repair business in California, where it runs 70 repair centers and is the largest single operator of auto shops. Nationwide, Sears' auto service and parts sales are estimated at more than $3 billion a year.

The department said the action results from an 18-month undercover investigation -- the agency's largest -- into repair practices at 33 Sears automotive centers throughout the state. The department said undercover agents took cars in top condition to Sears for mechanical inspections and were overcharged an average of $223 for repairs.

Besides making unnecessary repairs, Sears mechanics also charged some undercover agents for work that was never performed, the department said. In a few cases, Sears mechanics damaged cars; one undercover auto that went in for a brake inspection left Sears without brakes, the department said.

State Consumer Affairs Director Jim Conran said in an interview that the investigation revealed a "constant pattern of abuse" that he linked to intense corporate pressure on mechanics to sell certain parts. Mr. Conran said automotive department employees were required by regional managers to meet strict quotas on the replacement of shocks, springs and brake components.

"These are not honest mistakes," Mr. Conran said, referring to the findings of the investigation. "This is the systematic looting of the public."

Mr. Conran said he thinks aggressive sales tactics are being used in other states supervised by regional offices in Phoenix, which manage operations in Southern California, and those in Seattle, which oversee Northern California. "I doubt the problem stops at the California border," Mr. Conran said.

Reached at Sears headquarters in Chicago yesterday, spokesman Gordon Jones said the company would have no comment until after the charges are filed.

The investigations do not affect Sears' other retail operations. Mr. Conran said Sears department stores are not under investigation.

The Consumer Affairs Department said that during the first phase of its investigation, conducted last year, mechanics at 27 Sears auto centers performed costly and unnecessary repairs.

Most of the cars were sent to Sears with worn brake pads but no other mechanical problems. Nonetheless, the department alleges, Sears consistently sold easy-to-replace steering components, brake components, shocks and springs to the undercover agents. In one case, Sears replaced a set of rear springs that had only 18 miles on them.

Investigators said certain General Motors vehicles were likely targets because they were especially easy to work on.

Allen D. Wood, who headed the investigation, said, for example, that Sears mechanics tended to replace idler arms, a steering component, on GM Astrovans.

"You ask why? It's twice as much profit," said Mr. Wood. Astrovans have two idler arms, while most other vehicles have one.

Although the department has taken action in the past against small auto repair shops and individual outlets of major chains, this is the first time it has targeted the statewide operations of a company.

The case against Sears also is unusual because the department is seeking revocation of licenses held by all of Sears' 70 automotive centers, even though the investigation involved fewer than half of them.

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