Horne plans business 'stings' in AG's office - East Valley Tribune: Business

Horne plans business 'stings' in AG's office

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Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 12:11 pm | Updated: 5:28 pm, Fri Sep 16, 2011.

Arizona’s new attorney general wants auto repair shops to worry just a bit about who is driving in.

And Tom Horne said that will be good news for consumers.

Horne, who takes over from Terry Goddard in January, told Capitol Media Services he intends to institute a practice of “sting’’ operations to determine whether those in the business of car repair are being honest with their customers.

He said the idea can work one of two ways.

Under one scenario, mechanics would check out a vehicle to make sure it was in top operating condition. Then a “customer’’ would take it into a repair shop and ask that it be checked out.

An honest shop, said Horne, would conclude there is nothing wrong; a dishonest one would claim some problem that needed to be fixed.

He said the alternative is to have a mechanic create a small problem, perhaps a loose spark plug wire, and see if the shop simply fixes that or attempts to say the vehicle needs more extensive -- and expensive -- work.

Horne said it’s not like he has anything specific against places that do car repair or that he has personally had a bad experience with a shop. Instead, he called it a prime example of “where cheating is easier.’’

“In most areas, consumers know what they’re buying,’’ he said. “They can compare and can take care of themselves.’’

That’s not the case here.

“If you’re not a mechanic yourself, you really don’t know what’s wrong with your car,’’ Horne said. And that, he said, is why there need to be these kind of undercover operations to keep shop owners and operators honest.

“If people know that the person walking into the shop might be from the Attorney General’s Office, they’re going to treat everybody better,’’ he said.

Luz Rubio, executive director of the Automotive Service Association of Arizona, said she has no problem with the kind of operation Horne is planning. In fact, Rubio said her members are in favor of anything that will help protect consumers from less-than-honest service station operators.

Rubio said a major complaint she hears is from owners who have a problem, take the car into the shop and are given what amounts to a lowball initial estimate. Only after the vehicle is already there does the shop say that estimate won’t fix the problem and it’s going to cost a lot more.

“If they would have gone to a reputable shop the first time, gotten everything done, they wouldn’t have had a problem,’’ she said.

Rubio said the hunt for low-cost repairs is not surprising.

“Everybody’s looking to save money,’’ she said. But Rubio said sometimes the old proverb is correct: You get what you pay for.

Horne said the practice of using undercover shoppers probably won’t be limited to car repairs. He said similar operations are likely in any other area where consumers don’t have the same options to protect themselves.

Overall, though, Horne is promising a more cooperative relationship with business than has been the case under Goddard.

Horne cited an incident during the Goddard administration where an investigation was launched into the practices of an optometrist who did not have someone in his office who could speak Spanish.

The optometrist, saying he feared a malpractice suit, would not treat her even though she brought along her 12-year-old child to translate. Instead, he suggested she go to one of two other optometrists who speak Spanish or said she should come back with someone older to translate.

The Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation of whether the optometrist was violating state laws that prohibit discrimination in places of “public accommodation against anyone because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin or ancestry.’’

The optometrist said he was given an option to settle. But that would have required him to provide interpreters and documents in Spanish, something he said would set a bad precedent for not only his operation but other small businesses.

A year after the complaint was filed it was dismissed after the Attorney General’s Office concluded there had been no civil rights violation.

Horne said the investigation never should have been launched. But he said the problem went deeper than that.

He said representatives of the Arizona Optometric Association went to the Attorney General’s Office asking for guidelines to keep their members from running afoul of the law.

“The Attorney General’s Office didn’t show any interest in that,’’ Horne said. “They wanted to pursue their case.’’

Horne said he wants his attorneys to make better use of their discretion.

“Obviously, if somebody commits a crime, it needs to be prosecuted,’’ he said. “Ethical businesses should not have to compete with unethical businesses.’’

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