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NBC Bay Area Investigation Sparks Consumer Protection Bill

Thousands of complaints about auto repair shops in California have historically been kept secret, but new legislation could force the state to release that information to consumers.

California lawmakers are calling for more oversight of the auto repair industry after an NBC Bay Area investigation exposed how lax enforcement leaves California motorists unprotected.

The Bureau of Automotive Repair is a state agency created to protect consumers from unscrupulous shops and dealerships, however, the agency claims it has limited authority to issue fines for violations.

To compensate for those restrictions, the Bureau boasts it is able to recover over $5 million for consumers each year in refunds and repair work through negotiating with repair shops. However, as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered, the Bureau has never confirmed whether any of that promised money is ever paid to consumers. The Investigative Unit has also learned that the agency is powerless in forcing repair shops to pay out any of the refunds or repairs they may have previously promised to consumers.

“My initial thought is why you are you even in existence then,” said Matt Morris, who submitted a complaint to the bureau last year.

After Morris purchased a 2007 Mitsubishi Eclipse from a used car dealership, he says he thought the car had everything he wanted, but later discovered it was missing a critical part.

“I did not have a catalytic converter,” Morris told NBC Bay Area.

A car’s exhaust system relies on its catalytic converter to help make toxic gases less harmful, but Morris says when he took the vehicle into the repair shop to get his first smog check, the mechanic couldn’t find the catalytic converter.

“It didn’t even pass the visual inspection,” Morris said.

After discovering the missing part, Morris filed a complaint with the Bureau of Automotive repair. The dealership denied selling Morris a faulty car, but told the Bureau it would pay Morris $200 towards a new catalytic converter.

“I never received the check,” Morris told NBC Bay Area. “The dealership never even returned my phone calls.”

The Bureau receives roughly 12,000 auto repair complaints each year from consumers like Morris. But in February, NBC Bay Area discovered that for about 97 percent of those complaints – auto repair shops never face any kind of discipline.

For the 25 million licensed motorists in California, finding an honest mechanic is essential. Fraudulent repairs can create both financial hardships and serious safety hazards. But as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered, the state agency responsible for protecting consumers, may be hiding critical information that protects disreputable shops from public scrutiny. Bigad Shaban reports.

Bureau Chief Patrick Dorais says that’s because state law seriously limits when his agency can fine or cite auto repair shops. As a result, bureau investigators mainly serve as a mediator in hopes of reaching an informal settlement.

But while auto shops may tell investigators they’ll pay up, NBC Bay Area learned the state bureau doesn’t actually confirm whether consumers are ever paid. For its part, the bureau defends that while it does not verify if consumers are ever paid the refunds they were promised, the state can reopen a case if a business doesn’t follow through.

After watching our February investigation, California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla began pushing for a new state law that would force major changes at the bureau.

“I think your investigative reporting kind of showed us there were some gaps here and that the consumer isn't as protected as they could be, or should be,” Bonilla told NBC Bay Area

Bonilla’s bill, AB 1174, aims to more clearly outline the bureau’s power as a watchdog. It reinforces the agency's ability to issue more fines, and requires the results of all the bureau’s investigations be posted online.

Currently, details surrounding thousands of complaints are kept secret from the public, even when the bureau confirms a repair shop took advantage of a customer.

“You've got some pretty big gaps in your regulations here. [The Bureau has] the ability to levy more fines to affect the behavior of automotive repair shops and [they] should probably be doing more of that,” Bonilla said.

Albert Delao wonders why the bureau didn’t issue any fines after his car fell off a lift of a Midas shop in San Jose and the mechanics kept the damage secret.

After we aired his story, the Attorney General’s office got involved and is now accusing the shop of fraud. The state prosecutors are working with the Bureau of Automotive Repair to pull the shop’s license which could potentially shut it down. The owners of the repair shop now plan to sell the business, but told NBC Bay Area they still intend to fight those fraud allegations when they go against the Attorney General’s office at a hearing in August.

While the Delao family may soon see justice, thousands of other consumers who feel they have been taken advantage of, including Matt Morrison, may have to wait a little longer as lawmakers aren’t expected to take up Bonilla’s bill for several more weeks.

Morris paid $1,072.05 to buy a new catalytic converter for his car, but says he’s more frustrated by the long-term cost to consumers across California who are being neglected by a state agency that was created to protect them.

 “I was expecting some action. Not just left out to dry,” Morris said. “Why take the time to go out and do it – go through this rigorous investigation if you can't produce results?”


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