LOS ANGELES, JUNE 11 -- California consumer affairs officials today charged Sears, Roebuck & Co., one of the oldest and most trusted names in American retailing, with methodically cheating automobile repair customers in the state and sought to shut down the chain's 72 California repair shops.

The undercover investigation marks the first time the state has moved against a chain's statewide operations rather than targeting individual outlets. The case is also noteworthy because officials want to revoke the licenses of all Sears shops, even those investigators did not visit.

"Sears has used trust as a marketing tool and we don't believe they've lived up to that trust," California Consumer Affairs Director Jim Conran told a news conference today. Sears is the largest single operator of auto repair shops in California.

In a statement issued from its Chicago headquarters, Sears, the nation's second-largest retailer, said, "We strongly disagree with the allegations." The company vowed to fight them in court.

Thomas Hopkins, one of the lead investigators in the probe, said he was "outraged, shocked and disgusted" by what he found.

The California investigation has triggered interest in Sears auto centers nationwide, according to officials here.

State consumer protection divisions in Maryland and Virginia said they have had few complaints against Sears automotive centers.

When there are complaints they are handled quickly by Sears, according to a spokesman for Maryland's attorney general's office, which handles such complaints through its consumer protection division. There are no similar investigations of Sears underway in Maryland.

A spokesman for Virginia's Division of Consumer Affairs said that in the past two years it has received only five complaints about Sears automotive centers.

The practices found in California resulted from a Sears policy setting sales quotas for various parts and services, according to Hopkins, who works for the Consumer Affairs Department's Bureau of Automotive Repair. "Pressure was coming down from a higher level on the employees to commit fraudulent acts," he said. "It was organized, planned fraud."

Workers were told to sell a certain number of front-end alignments, brake repairs, springs, shocks and struts each day, investigators said. Those who did not meet those goals had their hours reduced or were transferred to lower-paying jobs, according to investigators. "Our policy has always been to put the safety of our customers first when recommending repairs to their vehicles," the Sears statement said.

Between December 1990 and August 1991, investigators made 38 visits to 27 Sears auto centers throughout California with cars that needed minor brake repair but had no mechanical problems. In 34 instances, Sears mechanics performed work that investigators said was unnecessary.

In other cases, investigators said they were charged for work that was not done. One car taken to Sears for a brake inspection left with brake fluid lines so loose that the brakes did not work at all, investigators charged.

State officials notified Sears of their findings in December and made 10 more visits to the chain's repair shops in January and February. In eight of those cases, they said, unnecessary work was done.

Details of the investigation were reported in today's Los Angeles Times.

The state Consumer Affairs Department began looking into Sears auto shops after they noticed that consumer complaints against the chain had nearly doubled over the past three years, officials said.

The state's request to revoke Sears's auto repair licenses will go before an administrative law judge who may recommend removing or suspending the permits, placing Sears on probation or letting Sears keep the licenses. The final decision is up to the Consumer Affairs Department and may be appealed in the courts.

Staff writer Michelle Singletary contributed to this report