SAN DIEGO -
An undercover sting by state investigators on an auto repair shop left the owner on probation, and Team 10 uncovering ways consumers can protect themselves against overcharges from any repair shop.
Troubleshooter Cristin Severance found the Bureau of Automotive Repair could mediate between auto shops and consumers to help consumers lower the final cost of their bills.
The Team 10 Consumer Investigation began with a tip call about Tony Atta's shop, Cox Auto Service #2 in San Diego.
State investigators said they launched the undercover operation after Atta's shop offered car repair deals that they said could not possibly be done with the prices advertised.
BAR Field Office Supervisor Bill Zelenka said his office sent two undercover cars to Atta's shop "to verify that consumers are getting the advertised price."
Zelenka said both cars were in perfect working condition, and then investigators broke some things to see what work would be done once the cars were separately brought in to Atta's shop.
The first car investigators sent was a 2000 Honda Accord in May 2011.
Zelenka said it needed front brake pads, a new relay to turn on the air conditioner and repairs to the fuel injection system. He said the total cost should have been $300, but Atta's shop came up with a total price of $1,296.
The shop machined the front rotors and sold state undercover investigators an ignition distributor cap, spark plugs, an air conditioner recharge and a fuel injection service.
Zelenka told Team 10 none of these things were needed.
He said Atta's mechanic did repair the relay for the air conditioner, but his shop didn't get authorization and didn't charge for it, which Zelenka said are violations under state law.
"We want to make sure that this is not a mistake or an accident, that this is a business practice," said Zelenka.
So he sent in another undercover car with other state investigators.
The second vehicle was a 2002 Toyota Four Runner, sent to Cox Auto Service #2 in June 2011.
The SUV needed front brake pads and a fix to the computer system to make the check engine light turn off.
According to the state, the total cost should have been $200, but the trip to Atta's shop left state investigators with a bill for $2,100.
Zelenka said Atta's shop sold investigators front and rear brakes, machined the front rotors, charged for machining the rear drums and replaced the rear brake shoes - all work the SUV didn't need.
Team 10 troubleshooter Cristin Severance asked Atta what happened.
"I never did anything wrong," Atta said. "It was a mistake. There was a misunderstanding."
Atta also said the state sent in 18 additional undercover cars and no problems were found on those cars. But BAR officials deny that claim.
"We haven't sent in other cars," Zelenka said. "And we would have to disclose if we sent in any other cars even if he did the right thing."
The San Diego City Attorney's Office filed a six-count criminal case against Atta in October. He pleaded guilty to overcharging and invoice violations, both misdemeanors. Atta paid a $3,000 fine, must complete 40 hours of state-approved professional training and is on probation for three years.
"Mr. Atta now has a year in custody hanging over his head," said Deputy City Attorney Kathryn Turner.
"Well, I pled guilty because the city attorney said how can a mechanic defend himself in front of Americans, because every one of them has problems with mechanics," Atta told Severance.
Atta said a bad mechanic who used to work for him did the work on the state cars, and he said that former employee ultimately is to blame.
Zelenka stressed consumers have rights, and offered these points to keep in mind when shopping for auto repair services:
Repair shops are required to provide consumers with a written estimate before any work begins. Any additional repairs must be specifically authorized to the consumer before work on those additions begins.
Get a second opinion if the repair estimate seems to high.
Only authorize maintenance services that are recommended by the vehicle manufacturer, found in the owner’s manual.
All repairs and parts must be listed on the final invoice given to the consumer.
BAR officials advise consumers to check an auto shop’s licensure with the state. Go to www.bar.ca.gov, click on “Check out a business” and type in the shop’s name to verify its licensed by the state.
Consumers who feel they have been overcharged can get the BAR involved to try to help lower a shop’s bill. The BAR can mediate between the vehicle owner and the shop over the final bill.
Consumers can receive a free auto body inspection www.bar.ca.gov, and get additional information about a vehicle’s history, such as its smog check past.