District officials have begun what one calls a "systematic crackdown on unlicensed automobile repair businesses.
A 1974 city statute requires virtually all car repair shops to register with the District's Office of Consumer Protection.
Acknowledging that his predecessors didn't do enough to enforce the statute, Herbert Simmons, director of the Office of Consumer Protection, says his staff, in connection with the Police Department's Consumer Fraud section, this week issued citations against four unregistered repair shops. The citations carry $50 fines.
The licensing is particularly important to the city's consumer protection agency because it won't grant a license unless all complaints against particular repair business have been resolved. "That's the one stick we have," said Fred Goldberg, the agency's general counsel.
The office is trying to reduce its backlog of about 1,000 cases. Only home improvement businesses are the targets of more complaints to the city consumer office than the auto repair business.
In order to get a license, an auto repair dealer must have a bonding certificate from a private insurer. That bond costs about $25 a year.
In addition, filing an application with the Office of Consumer Protection costs a repair shop operator $153, and a new application must be submitted each year.
Those licenses have to be posted visibly at the repair site. The District law also entitles the consumer to a written estimate and some description of replacement parts.
Police and consumer protection officials believe that licensed auto repair shops aren't the primary cause of the deluge of complaints. "They basically are the good shops who do good work," noted Detective Richard Ragsdale of the police Consumer Fraud section.
It is the so-called "back alley garage," as ragsdale put it, that causes problems for consumers and ultimately for city regulators.
So on Monday, the city consumer office issued complaints against Ray's Transmission, 2101 L St. NW; Arrow Garage, 1402 S St. NW; Ambosel Foreign Car Repair, 1781 Florida Ave. NW; and Grant's Gulf, 4531 14th St. NW.
"They've always had this problem, but the enforcement used to be random," Goldberg said. The new crackdown is based on complaints against particular businesses. These four repair shops cited this week had complaints against them totaling $3,634, Goldberg said.
Goldberg said the city's statute is "one of the most progressive" in the country and gives the city Office of Consumer Protection a unique opportunity to address specific consumer grievances. "This is indicative of the office's intention to develop a more aggressive enforcement posture," Goldberg said.
But Simmons pointed out that even with the aid of the city's police, it will be difficult for the relatively small consumer protection staff to ferret out all violators of the licensing law.
Simmons said the office also will send out fliers as part of an education program to tell District consumers about their rights and what to look for at city auto repair businesses.
Ultimately, however, Simmons said the licensing responsibility rests with the repair shop operator. "There has been a deliberate effort to avoid being licensed," Simmons said. "The problem has also been that you can go out one day and tell a guy he has to be licensed. The next day, he fades into the alleys."