Repair Ripoffs

His manner is mild, but when it comes to fighting auto fraud, Warren Samm is a dragon slayer.

"It's very exciting at times, especially when we catch the people who are doing the fraud out there," he said.

He's a chief investigator with the California Bureau of Automotive Repair, a stealthy agency, operating out of seven secret locations. Its mission: to uncover unscrupulous auto shops and put them out of business.

And in auto-dependent California, where there's at least one accident every 30 seconds, repair scams are a multi-million dollar business. The bureau gets 30,000 auto-repair complaints a year, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

"We did a study and that study determined that 40 percent of body repairs were fraudulent," said Samm.

Protect Yourself
If you're the typical car owner, you may not know much about the mechanics of your vehicle. When it's time for repairs, however, you should know how to locate a reliable shop and a qualified mechanic.

Click here for tips on choosing a repair shop.

Click here to read Consumer Reports' article on the auto salvage business.

So, Inspector Samm takes a perfectly good car from the hundreds in the bureau's fleet and purposely, meticulously dents and scrapes and documents the damage. Then he sends undercover agents out on sting operations to shops with repeated consumer complaints. He does this several times to establish a record.

"We really expect them to do the work they were paid for. If they didn't, well they're in a lot of trouble," said Samm.

California's largest auto shop association denies fraud is rampant. It says the state is smearing the whole industry because of a few dirty mechanics. To find out how widespread repair fraud actually is, California just launched a two-year study.

As part of the study, consumers who think they've been ripped off can get a free, at-home check up from inspectors like Samm.

The bureau's investigations lead to about 400 cases of consumer fraud and violations a year. California was the first state to rev up such an operation, but others are following its lead.

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