Unlicensed Bodywork Making a Big Dent
By DAVID GREENBERG
On a recent Saturday in a crowded West L.A. parking lot, Michael examined two badly dented side panels of a two-door red Honda Civic. He could make the repairs, paint the sides, and make it almost as good as new all for $200, instead of the $700 to $1,200 several licensed body shops were quoting.
Michael’s tools slide and tapping hammers, drills, suction cups, and pry bars were borrowed with the help of a friend who works weekdays in a licensed shop and who receives a cut of the action.
“I snuck them out,” said Michael, 23, who said he’s been out of work for a year. “My friend who was running the shop let me take the tools out as long as I brought them back whenever I promised.”
Every day they scour crowded retail parking lots throughout L.A. in search of vehicles with dents, scrapes or major damage, enticing owners of aging cars to pay for quick on-site repairs at prices drastically lower than what licensed auto body shops charge.
These gypsy auto body repairmen, armed with a trunk full of hand tools, number in the hundreds, if not thousands. They are costing licensed repair shops and their suppliers millions of dollars in lost sales, law enforcement officials estimate.
Some gypsy repairmen operate full time while others are employed by licensed shops and moonlight on the weekends to make extra cash. Many employed at shops own their own tools or borrow them from fellow employees, while others swipe them for short periods when the shop boss is not around.
They view their jobs as a free-market enterprise in a slowing economy one that’s a hit-and-miss proposition financially. According to two gypsy repairmen found conducting their business recently, an auto body nomad can generate $1,800 on a given weekend or absolutely nothing over an entire week. Usually, it’s $400 to $500 slightly better than the $80 to $90 per day they would make at licensed shops, and it’s tax free.
“We’re hard-working people,” said Rocko, a 28-year-old West L.A. resident, who claims he logs 200 miles each day driving through parking lots looking for jobs. “We believe that you’ve got to work hard to get anywhere. I can do the work right. People are saving lots of time, money and they don’t have to leave their car nowhere. I make them happy. It’s not something you can pay taxes on. But I pay taxes in other ways on my home and sales taxes. I’m not a dishonest person.”
Hard to track down
Investigators with the State Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Automotive Repair and the Los Angeles Police Department’s auto body repair fraud unit don’t see it that way. But locating and punishing gypsy repairmen has proven nearly impossible largely because attention is focused on more serious crimes.
“The end economic impact is in the millions because there are a lot of related items you buy shop supplies, paint, solvents, tools, uniforms when you go to a legitimate business,” said James Anderson, a 10-year veteran BAR investigator. “There’s a ripple effect. These people are violating the law and they are hurting legitimate businesses.”
The degree of damage remains unclear. Trade groups such as the Sacramento-based California Auto Body Association or the St. Charles, Ill.-based National Auto Body Council don’t even track the illegal practice.
Other law enforcement agencies, such as BAR and the LAPD, Department, are grossly understaffed to tackle the problem. In fact, the LAPD has only two detectives assigned to auto body repair fraud and one is on an extended medical leave.
For Det. Robert Marsh, the lone investigator on duty, most of his time is spent hunting down regular auto body shops whose operators inflict additional damage on customers’ vehicles with the intent of overcharging insurance companies.
“There’s probably a lot of officers in the police department that don’t know we exist,” he said. “You’re getting into sections (with gypsy repairmen) that are rarely if ever enforced.”
BAR has 30 investigators in its three L.A. County offices Culver City, South El Monte and Canoga Park who handle auto body repair fraud. This also includes tracking unlicensed shops and so-called backyard operations where amateurs fix neighbors’ vehicles for a fee. Violators face misdemeanor citations, small fines, or in the case of shops, possibly nothing more than an order to obtain a license.
The fact that many areas of L.A. are made up of dense rental housing with no backyards only benefits gypsy repairmen, who target parking lots in largely low- to moderate-income areas.
They are reluctant to identify themselves by anything but their first name or a nickname, and they never give invoices, warranties or other documentation that lists an address. So dissatisfied customers have little information to give authorities if they want to file a complaint.
“Today, they’re in West L.A., tomorrow in Encino and next week in Ontario,” said Anderson. “We have to have a physical location for our representatives to go to. We don’t have the manpower or money to go hunt somebody down. I could hang around the parking lot of Starbucks all day. But I don’t know if my boss would approve of it.”
If a complainant has a repairman’s cell phone number, bureau investigators have been known to pose as a customer who received a referral for work. But even if both sides meet and money is exchanged, investigators have limited information-gathering authority for making a case to prosecutors.
“I hate to advertise our shortcomings,” said Daniel Povey, program manager for BAR’s auto body investigations unit. “But we have no police powers. We can ask for (identification) but they do not have to comply.”
Police said they also have limited authority because a local motor vehicle code that prohibits non-emergency vehicle repairs on city streets is vague when it comes to parking lots. Unless cruiser patrols receive a complaint from a merchant, they are unlikely to investigate an on-site repair job anyway.
“When you’re dealing with parking lots, you’re dealing with private property,” said Marsh. “That code probably does apply but I’m not exactly sure. And if an officer is driving down the street and sees this work in a parking lot, he’s probably not even going to stop. He’s looking for burglars or answering radio calls. They’re not going to be out there looking for gypsy body men.”
Few cases reported
For that reason, the city attorney’s office, which prosecutes all misdemeanor cases, receives very few cases involving gypsy repairmen, said Don Kass, supervisor of the city attorney’s consumer protection division.
Law enforcement officials said that while some gypsy repairmen are skilled laborers capable of solid work, others do little to repair the vehicles. Even the repairmen themselves acknowledge that the dent they remove using hard putty, sandpaper and paint will not look as good as the work from a licensed shop, which has state-of-the-art repair machinery and replacement parts. But car owners often can’t resist the on-site service because gypsy repairmen start off with a low price and often can be bargained down even lower.
Some auto body owners are trying to fight back.
West Covina-based Seidner’s Collision Centers Inc., which operates seven auto body shops, including six in L.A. County, devised a system to deter employees from stealing, giving away or misusing repair materials. (Shop workers own their own tools.) Each worker’s use of materials is monitored and those who use less than the $200 limit per month receive year-end bonuses amounting to the value of the unused materials.
But others concede that no real solution is in sight.
“They basically take a chunk of the market share,” said Roy Martinez, manager of Prestige Coach Craft Inc., a licensed Marina del Rey auto body shop. “It is bothersome as it should be to all the people in this business. Nothing really can be done because the consumer wants it that way. It’s cheaper. So (gypsy repairmen) will get away with it.”