The state of New Jersey has filed a lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co., alleging various types of fraudulent practices against customers at Sears Auto Repair Centers.
An undercover investigation of 19 Sears Auto Repair Centers across New Jersey uncovered more than 350 violations in six locations of the state's Consumer Fraud Act, according to the five-count complaint the New Jersey attorney general's office filed Oct. 10 in Hudson County Superior Court.
The main charge against Sears is that its Auto Service Centers charged consumers for repairs and services that they could not have performed. For example, according to the attorney general's office, employees of the centers routinely charged customers for four-wheel alignments, even when the vehicles in question were built only for two-wheel alignments.
Also, the suit alleges Sears employees:
* Completed and charged for repairs without customer authorization-often under the guise of a ``free'' alignment inspection;
* Performed defective repairs, including failure to tighten wheel lug nuts;
* Misled consumers into authorizing unnecessary repairs; and
* Failed to provide consumers with written estimates.
``This case has nationwide implications,'' said New Jersey Attorney See Jersey, page 41
General David Samson in a press release. ``Business operators in New Jersey, whether local or national, must understand that we will impose a zero tolerance on fraud.''
The suit seeks restitution for the Sears customers and an unspecified amount of civil penalties. Each violation could carry a fine of $7,500 to $10,000, Mr. Samson said.
Officials in the N.J. attorney general's office could not be reached by Tire Business for further comment.
A Sears spokeswoman said the company is conducting an internal investigation of the allegations in the lawsuit. She added that the company has ``a tough, multi-step process'' designed to evaluate its auto repair and service operations, and it will take ``immediate action'' to correct problems and reimburse consumers if it finds any violations.
The New Jersey case isn't the first time Sears has faced charges of auto repair fraud.
In 1992, the giant retailer paid $50 each to nearly 1 million customers as partial reimbursement for allegedly unnecessary auto work and also paid $200,000 to establish an Automotive Repair Industry Reform Fund. From the latter arose the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP), an industry initiative for accreditation of auto repair shops.
MAP went nationwide in 1998, after a successful two-year test run in a dozen states.
Lawrence S. Hecker, president of MAP, declined comment on the case involving Sears, a charter member and one of MAP's biggest participating companies. ``All we know is what we've read in the newspaper and in the New Jersey Attorney General's (press) release,'' he said. ``The evidence is incomplete.''