Ads for inexpensive repairs brought in customers. But many of those people say they were ripped off.
Customers were lured in by ads promising they could get their brakes fixed for less than $100. But many of them left with bills that were hundreds of dollars more and, in some cases, more than $1,000, state agents say.
And, investigators say, the customers' cars may not have even needed that work.
State Agriculture and Consumer Services agents have been investigating several Just Brakes locations in the Tampa Bay area for about a year. The inquiry was prompted by more than 100 complaints in Florida to the state and the Better Business Bureau since 2000.
Last week, agents raided three Just Brakes shops in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, seeking billing receipts, sales-tactic scripts and other records in what state officials say is a criminal investigation.
The shops are located at 13015 Seminole Blvd. in Largo, 1159 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in Clearwater and 7532 W Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.
State officials say most of the complaints accused Just Brakes shops of using a bait-and-switch sales tactic in which customers were promised inexpensive service, then were prodded into paying for more expensive and unneeded fixes.
To see if the complaints were valid, agents launched sting operations at the three shops. Undercover agents brought in cars with brakes that were in good shape, then watched as mechanics charged for unnecessary repairs that were more than the $99.98 advertised price, agents said.
Just Brakes spokeswoman Sarah Lary said the company did not know about the state inquiry before the searches last week. The Dallas company has opened an investigation into the complaints, she said.
The company has a solid record of customer service, Lary said. During the past four years, Just Brakes shops in the Tampa Bay area have served more than 102,000 customers, and less than two-tenths of 1 percent of them have complained about their service, Lary said.
"If you look at the big picture ... you'll really see how good of a track record that is for customer satisfaction," she said.
But investigators say the tactics used by Just Brakes mechanics could lead to charges of grand theft or organized scheme to defraud. The Statewide Prosecutor's Office is involved in the investigation.
Agents are trying to determine if the tactics they discovered in Largo, Clearwater and Tampa are used throughout the company or whether they are confined to the local shops, said Lt. Col. Lou Leinhauser, assistant director of law enforcement for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
"We're really looking at the business practices from top to bottom," Leinhauser said.
Agents chose to focus on the Tampa Bay area shops because a high concentration of complaints came from this area, he said.
But complaints to the consumer Web site ripoffreport.com have come from other states as well.
Just Brakes, which has about 130 stores in eight states, has been the subject of at least 500 complaints to the Web site, said its editor, Ed Magedson.
One man in Arizona was so incensed by a run-in with Just Brakes that he built a Web site to complain about his experience. The site includes photographs of what the man claims was poor work by Just Brakes mechanics.
Magedson said he thinks the company's headquarters put so much pressure on its local managers that they resort to tricking customers. Then when complaints roll in, the company looks the other way, he said.
"They make it motivating for the mechanics to rip off the consumer," Magedson said.
Other auto repair companies get a lot of complaints, Magedson said, but Just Brakes is near the top of the list.
"They're right up there," he said.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org