Smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, auto mechanic Alec Smith sits at a booth inside a surfers' dive on First Street, Encinitas. Five months earlier, he had quit a North County service station, where he’d worked a year, and tonight he is telling stories about auto repair fraud he witnessed on the job. By the time he finishes, he will have documented sixteen instances that, in slight permutations, occurred daily at his garage. "And I suspect it happens at a lot of stations," he says.
Alec started work November, 1983. (All names have been changed in this story.) He was healthy when hired, but soon he developed an ulcer. It wasn’t coincidence. Alec’s problem is that he’s honest. ‘‘Most people are ignorant when it comes to their cars. But I don't think it’s right to take advantage of their ignorance. Oh yeah, this is a dirty business, this repair and maintenance of the American automobile.”
The station is situated immediately beside Interstate 5, between Del Mar and Leucadia, and freeway motorists can easily spot the station's towering logo, standing high on a pole. Many drivers have the station's credit card; it’s a freeway garage, leased from a major oil company, and it pumps about 120,000 gallons of gas monthly.
Drive in at midday. Look around, see the gas attendants, red rags dangling limply from their grease-stained back pockets, leaning against pumps, waiting. But after a Padres or Chargers game and during rush hour, they work hard, lifting hoods, checking motorists’ oil, twisting off steaming radiator caps. Stacked radials, a Coke machine, and yellow Anco windshield wipers display stand in front of the office. Look around some more. A woman with long, curly hair, dressed in a beige suit and holding a briefcase, has come to pick up her Datsun B210, and she’s looking at her bill, grinding her molars.
At first Alec worked at the gas pumps. He worked six days a week, sometimes from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., or 3:00 p.m. to midnight. He learned a lot about petty theft. "First of all, there are two requirements to shaft somebody at the pumps. First, customers must pull into full serve, and shafting becomes much easier if the customer stays seated. Take a woman in a Cadillac — if she doesn’t get out of her car, she’s setting herself up for getting ripped off. You tend to do this with cars with gas tank nozzles on the side, so you can stand between the driver’s vision and the pump, but even with a car like a Cadillac that fills in back, behind the license plate, you can do it. If the Cadillac needed fifteen dollars to fill. Mick [a pump attendant] told the customer sixteen dollars. You can do it with a credit card, too. You make the woman out a slip for sixteen dollars, then wait till you think nobody is looking, and it’s so easy slipping a dollar out the till, when you’re making change for the next guy. That may sound like small potatoes. But if you can shortchange twenty or thirty cars a shift, it adds up. And, I should say, most of our gas jocks had drug habits to support, and that extra seventy or eighty dollars a week they made shafting customers helped." (However, Alec adds, one fringe benefit of work at this station was that the day-shift manager dealt cocaine, marijuana, and Quaaludes, enabling gas attendants, when purchasing drugs, to save transportation costs.)
Alec says that Mick, the pump attendant, had two more tricks. He used to keep an empty quart of oil in the rack in case, for instance, a well-dressed man, who he knew wouldn’t get out of his car, came in to have his oil checked. Sending down the dipstick, Mick would slip his finger under the shroud, making the oil look a quart low. He’d show the man the level and tell him he needed a quart, then grab the empty can, jab in the spout, and earn five percent commission. The other trick he often bragged about was puncturing rear tires with his icepick and telling customers their tires were flat. "Sure, all those rip-offs bothered me." Alec says, “especially that a customer might have really needed oil. But then, from the other aspect, in this society you tip barbers, waitresses, bellhops, but why not gas jockeys? They perform the same service. Why not tip them half a buck? In fact., it seems to me the only people who aren't tipped in America are airline stewardesses and gas jockeys.”
The station's stellar reputation for fraud shone most brightly inside the garage. When it came to maximizing profits in minimum time, Alec’s fellow mechanics were professionals. Posted in various spots were faded blue signs, giant red checks in their centers, alerting motorists that the station was a "Licensed Smog Check" center. In fact, because the station ran specials and frequently charged only $14.95 for a check — which was six dollars cheaper than the average charge levied by the other 665 licensed county service stations and repair shops — it did a lot of them. A mechanic named George performed them. “Jesus, giving George a smog license was giving him a license to steal,” Alec says. "Here’s how he made his money. If the car passed first time, he got a cut of what we charged for checking, plus six dollars for the certificate. But if the car could be made to fail, he could charge right up to the legal limit — fifty dollars. It is damned easy to make a car fail.”
Alec recalls one morning when a Chicano kid. in chino slacks and soft leather shoes, dropped off his ’77 Chevy Impala. “I need the car smogged,” the kid said.
“Drive it into the second bay,” George replied.
The kid did and got out of his car and signed a work form at which he never looked. “I'll pick the car up this evening.”
He walked across the asphalt lot to the street comer and slid into a friend’s car. “Well, that was his first mistake,” Alec says. “Leaving the car unattended.”
George hooked up the tachometer cable to the spark-plug wire and then went around to the rear; this was a lowrider’s car and George made some snide remark that the body was so goddamned low to the ground he had to practically crawl on his belly to push the probe up the exhaust pipe.
George looked under the hood and checked whether the engine had all the factory pollution-control equipment, such as an EGR valve, air injection, manifold, engine warning light, converter — and around the back for the fuel pipe restrictor, which wouldn’t allow a nozzle from a leaded-gas pump to be inserted.
Next he turned on the ignition, went under the hood with a screwdriver — that was all he needed — and tightened the idle screw on the carburetor, decreasing the amount of air coming out of the jet and making the gas/air mixture too rich. Alec says, “He'd hold the throttle at 2500 r.p.m. for the required thirty seconds and get a reading of, Jesus, I don’t know, 1700 parts per million hydrocarbons. That’s way too high.” The car failed. George went back under the hood and, loosening the idle screw, increased the air mixing with the gasoline; he took another reading, and the hydrocarbons would be down to 700 parts per million. That’s what the level would have been in the first place, if George hadn't fooled with the carburetor. “But to George, raising the levels, before the first reading, made sense. All he needed to pass the car was to lower emissions. Well, now the car passed.” The kid came back later to pick up his Impala. George told him, “You needed some work done on your timing and carburetor. But we got your car through.”
Ray Mendoza, the senior mechanic responsible for estimates, knew what George did. He got a cut, too, and charged fifty dollars for ten minutes’ labor.
If the customer stayed with the car during the smog inspection, George employed another method. He would hold the throttle at 2500 r.p.m. for the thirty seconds, but then, fast as he could, he would lower the throttle to idle. “Four times out of ten, that will dump a whole load of unburned gasoline out the exhaust.” However, customers frequently left, at which times George used crude but highly effective methods, such as holding a rag over the carburetor. “Well, Jesus, that way, you can’t get any air in the carburetor,” Alec says. “That’s going to raise the hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide levels way high.”
Since March 19, 1984, the state of California has required that the data tapes inside smog machines go to Sacramento, making cheating on smogging considerably more difficult. “These days, Ray [the senior mechanic] would only illegally pass a car if he knew the owner. And then it would be as a personal favor. And not so much a bribe, like he used to take. Used to be, before March, a customer might bring in his Charger street rod. You know, one with headers without air pipes, high-rise manifold, dual carburetors, punched-out gas tank, no catalytic converter. I mean, one with the engine completely modified. ‘It’s going to cost you, but, yeah, I can make it pass for $150,’ Ray would tell the owner. Because then all he had to do was give him a certificate. No tape went into a data bank in Sacramento and complicated matters.
Well, since March, with the tape, if he passed a car and recorded that the engine had all the right equipment, but the engine didn’t, and the car were re-sold and re-tested, why, the new tape would list the equipment missing Ray punched in the engine as having. If there were an investigation, Ray could be fined, he could lose his smog license, he could go to jail. You can get in a lot of trouble and you better be pretty careful about who you do favors for.” However, when a friend brought in a Toyota pickup — he’d installed a large V-8 that was highly modified and totally illegal — Ray recorded that the engine had all the right equipment. “But then, his friend was in the trade — he was a dealer — and he didn’t intend selling the pickup; if he were ever questioned by the Bureau of Automotive Repair, he’d say, after Ray smogged the truck, he took off all the required equipment. Well, without Ray’s help, the vehicle would have gone to a referee station, where it would be adjudicated, and the vehicle might not have passed, or, if it were passed, the referee station could have ordered an air pump installed [or other equipment] and that could cost $ 150 or more. So Ray passed him. I mean, that’s what friends are for.”
Alec theorizes that if Marty Martin, the station's operator, paid his employees better wages and treated them more fairly, they would less likely have been dishonest. In individual instances, that may be true, but the reality was that dishonesty and greed permeated the station. Pump attendants resented their wages — four dollars hourly — and that frequently they worked from five to midnight one day, then were ordered to report back to work at seven in the morning. Once they arrived, exhausted, they might work three more hours or so, only to find that if the day were slow, Marty ordered them home. So when they stole from him, they felt justified. Cars bumping off Interstate 5, tires flat, for instance, provided a prime source of hidden income. Attendants patched tires five or six times a night. Since no parts were involved and no invoice was needed, attendants pocketed the ten dollars charged to the customers. Attendants and mechanics alike pocketed customers’ payments on minor tune-ups, lubes, and other jobs involving solely labor. Without work orders, Marty never knew.
Marty frequently accused his employees of stealing, but according to Alec, those times he was usually wrong. Occasionally a greedy attendant started stealing tens and twenties from the till. But most often, when shifts showed twenty or thirty dollars short, an error in Marty’s bookkeeping was the reason. “He was always finding shifts short,” Alec recalls, “and he’d stomp inside the garage — this from a man clearing $10,000 monthly — shouting, ‘I’ll fire the whole damned crew! You're all stealing!' He went around calling us a pack of thieves, and you get to thinking, if you have the name, you might as well play the game. But Marty was the biggest shafter of them all.
“I think the worst thing was his lack of back-up and concern for the customer. You get a woman brings in her car for a tune-up who comes back two days later, claiming her car won't accelerate, Marty would tell her the tune-up was done all right, but she really needed her carburetor overhauled, and charge her another $150. Sometimes I'd be assigned the overhaul and the carburetor was fine and the real problem was we hadn’t set her points right or properly adjust her timing. The problem was the station had no set policy to deal with customers. Ray, for instance, may have been high priced, but by God. he'd have your car running. Ray would have charged the woman — the one complaining her car wouldn't accelerate — one hundred dollars for the tune-up, but if the problem was due to the station doing something wrong, he’d fix the car no charge. He did come-backs all the time, and, if he did a tune-up, and the carb didn't need an overhaul, he wouldn't overhaul the carb. Marty would.”
The mechanics’ wages encouraged their inventiveness, finding new ways to maximize profits. Except for Alec (who was paid a flat rate), the rest made fifty percent of billing on labor at thirty-five dollars hourly; if a job took four hours, a mechanic made seventy dollars, and on a good day earned in excess of $250, during good weeks more than $1000. Profits could be multiplied by working on two cars at once, a feat easily accomplished when one car was given an estimate for intensive and costly work, when it needed little, if any.
Jimmy McLeod had a kink in his personality, and he loved to get away with being the bad boy. A masterful cheat, the station's profit-sharing plan encouraged Ray and Marty to let Jimmy work without trying to curb his penchant for deceiving customers, since Ray took a ten percent cut on all the mechanics’ labor and Marty got the remaining forty percent. “One of our customers, a realtor, came in every few weeks, driving her Lincoln Continental, complaining she heard noises — squeaks and rattles — she never heard before. Nobody else heard them either,” Alec says. “Jimmy road-tested her car and, hearing nothing, told her he did. He said he had a heavy workload, but as a special favor, he'd have her car ready by four. The woman parked her car in back, where it sat all day. At three, Jimmy told me to move it. That way, Jimmy said, it looked like he did the work.
“ ‘Look like you did the work!’ I said. ‘What about the noises!’
“ ‘Hell. There's nothing wrong with her car.’
“The woman came at four. Meanwhile, Jimmy told me to make up some story about what was wrong. Yeah, I told her a story. Ray charged eighty dollars.”
However, on slow days, rather than shortening his work, Jimmy needed to pad labor costs, providing customers with needless repairs. A Chevy Nova, for example, needed brake work when Ray Mendoza was at a Los Angeles car show and Jimmy was senior mechanic for the day. After road-testing the car and knowing he had no other vehicles to repair, he finally persuaded the owner he needed a full brake job. Jimmy told Alec to rack the Nova. Alec unscrewed the wheel nuts with an air gun, slipped off the front tires, and pulling off the brake drums, saw that indeed the pads were worn, but when he checked the rear shoes, they still looked good. He went to Jimmy.
“There’s fifty percent left in the rear shoes,”
“Alec, the man said he wanted a full brake job.”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. He can go at least another 10,000.”
Jimmy just looked at Alec, then waved his hand. “Let’s just screw him.”
“I don’t know, Jimmy.”
Politics forced Alec’s capitulation. “I didn’t like doing it, but I’m not going to make waves. Jimmy was in solid with Marty,” Alec says. Jimmy worked off and on for Marty fifteen years and bragged that whenever he needed work, Marty would fire another mechanic to make room. “You didn’t want to get Jimmy against you ”
Another repair on which Jimmy cheated customers was air conditioning. “The average man may have some conception how the internal combustion engine works, but not one in one thousand knows anything about air conditioning,” Alec claims. Customers frequently brought in air-conditioned cars, complaining they didn’t know why, but their air conditioner had stopped working. Many left without written estimates, providing the station carte blanche to do whatever repairs it deemed necessary. Jimmy, who did air conditioning, checked the system, telling Ray that moisture was inside. He would repair the leak, he said, then vacuum pump the moisture. “Lots of times, all Jimmy did was pour in two bucks’ worth of Freon,” says Alec. Ray charged eighty dollars for fifteen minutes' work and two dollars’ worth of Freon. The customer went away happy. Jimmy worked on a second car while the first sat untouched, but got paid for working on both.
Alec rolled his eyes and groaned, finishing his stories. In two hours, he’d listed a dozen instances of consumer fraud, yet not one of these told of customers complaining they were deliberately misled. “People don’t bitch, because they usually don't know they’ve been shafted. We preyed on people’s ignorance.” Ignorance, however, is often only half the story. Alec says Ray Mendoza justified his deliberate deception and overcharging as a necessary expense consumers must bear. Ray has lost money on jobs plenty of times, according to Alec. Transmissions he sent out for rebuilding came back and were installed but proved defective; the customer returned, complained; the transmission was taken out, sent back to the shop for more work; hours of labor were spent without charge beyond the station’s original estimate. The estimate Ray gives a customer frequently is based on whether the garage has lost money recently on a come-back. “Then he may have to charge the next guy more to make up for it,” Alec says.
The most flagrant instance of an overcharged owner was one who paid the equivalent of $900 an hour. Like many, he didn't know what his Buick Regal’s problem was, only that the front end rattled. “I found a crack in the casing that held the transmission in against the mounting bracket,” Alec recalls. “If the owner took his car to the Buick dealer, they’d say he needed to put the transmission inside a new casing. I shuddered to think about the cost. Jesus. Easily a grand. I thought I could do it a lot more cheaply with a good weld. Ray called the owner and said we could do the job. I ordered $5.43 worth of eighth-inch welding rod and slipped it in the stinger. I finished twenty minutes later. Well, technically, it was a damned difficult job. I had to weld both sides — top and bottom — but couldn’t see the top without taking out the transmission. But doing that would have really jacked up the cost. That’s what most welders would have done. I welded the top holding a mirror in my free hand. The station charged $300.
“ ‘Jesus Christ, Ray,’ I said. ‘That’s a hell of a lot of money for a twenty-minute job and $5.43 worth of rod.*
“But everywhere else the customer went, Ray argued, he would have been charged a lot more. Like, you see, he said, ‘Where the hell else is he going to go with it?’ ” Marty, the station’s operator, watched Alec work and noticed six welding rods remained; his penchant to maximize profits turned him into an obsessive monster. “I wish that for once, Alec, you would order only what you need.”
“Holy Christ, Marty, we just made you $300 on a twenty-minute job.”
“Those rods cost five bucks!” Marty complained.
Alec finally quit in the fall of 1984. “I suppose I resented the way he treated his help. I mean, Marty employed management techniques that went out of fashion with Genghis Khan. Cheap. God, he was cheap. For example, the cutting torches’ gauges were a potential hazard to explode. OSHA would have had him by the balls. He was too cheap to spend the fifty dollars to fix them.”
All the mechanics have gone by now, not necessarily willingly. Marty fired George. Jimmy died.
Ray quit to work at another shop.
Since Alec quit, his ulcer vanished. He has his own shop now in Encinitas. And his former boss is now doing his own repairs. “I found out the other day, when a woman brought in a Datsun station wagon she needed tuned. I checked her filters and replaced her air and crankcase breeder filters. They were full of garbage and oil. The woman said she had just got her car lubed and oil changed and her mechanic charged to change them. ‘I'm sorry, ma'am. But your air filter hasn't been changed in years,’ I said. I asked where she went for her lube and oil change.” It was Alec's old station. “I asked if she remembered the mechanic. She didn’t know his name. She described him. Marty Martin.”
What to do if you think you’ve been ripped off
Most car owners have their own auto-repair horror stories, but the aggravating nature of those stories makes them more alive in one's memory. That could account for the large gap between the public’s perception that mechanics cheat and what the statistics say, because only about 2600 formal complaints are filed each year with the San Diego County Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), a division of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. “Those percentages are infinitesimal when you consider the county has about one million lightweight trucks and passenger vehicles,” says Mike Flanigan, assistant BAR public affairs chief. “We find very small — minute — instances of intentional misconduct.” And when a problem occurs, “it typically involves incompetency, misdiagnosis.”
“The majority of the facilities [in the county] try to be honest,” asserts Mike Vanderlaan, county BAR program manager. Yet in the past year, since March. 1984, nearly fifty mechanics were stung during the course of 150 undercover operations that involved the county’s smog certification and repair facilities. These dishonest mechanics were called into Vanderlaan’s office and were told to change their methods or face further administrative or legal action. San Diego County, in fact, leads the state in number of complaints reported against smog certification mechanics, according to Richard Sommerville, county air pollution control officer.
That doesn’t mean most mechanics are honest — or dishonest. The figure of 2600 formal complaints may be misleading, however, since it’s derived solely from consumers who believed they were cheated and then complained; many consumers, believing they were cheated, either didn’t know about the BAR’S mediating services, or, afflicted by a sense of apathy that being taken by auto mechanics is to be expected, never lodged formal complaints. “I would say at least fifty percent [of the county's mechanics] take people on a spasmodic basis — they all take the odd person,” said one local mechanic who did not wish to be identified. “Consumers frequently don’t even know they’ve been cheated, or that their mechanic misdiagnosed the car’s problem.”
Before any major work is done, Mike Flanigan suggests, the consumer should get a second opinion. Should the work that was done dissatisfy the consumer or should the consumer believe he has been cheated, he or she should go to another garage and sec whether the work performed was done correctly and was what was needed. If the dispute between consumer and garage can't be resolved, the BAR has a toll-free number (800-952-5210). Just telling the mechanic or operator that you are going to the BAR often will settle the dispute in the consumer’s favor. “Mechanics 'and shop operators are deathly afraid of facing the bureau,” the local auto mechanic says. “It’s bad news when you get called in by the BAR.”