The small advertisement in the local newspaper last week urged consumers to call the "Environmental Pollution Authority" if they noticed any "unusual chemical, paint or spray mist" on their cars.
"To prevent further pollution damage to your car, we will have one of our claims investigators take the necessary information from you for us to process your claim," promised the advertisement, which bore an official-looking seal and a toll-free number.
It might have seemed like a good idea, but the Orange County district attorney's office didn't think so.
That's because the advertisement was placed by Dura-Shine Auto Service Centers, a Placentia body repair and detail shop. The ad was merely a device to help the shop scare up some new business.
"We were just trying to elicit a response, but someone turned us in to the district attorney's office," said George Colliard, Dura-Shine's owner. "The district attorney advised us that it looked too official, so we killed it," he said.
The district attorney's office received at least one complaint concerning the operation, said Pat Mejia, a clerk in the office's fraud division. Her office, she said, then sent a letter of inquiry to the company, along with a request for a copy of the advertisement.
Though Colliard has withdrawn the advertisement, he defends it as legal because it did not actually state that the Environmental Pollution Authority is a government agency. And, he said, "Environmental Pollution Authority" is a legally registered, fictitious business name.
"We are the Environmental Pollution Authority, because we are expert in removing pollution from cars," said Colliard, who added that the ill-fated advertisement cost about $400. "In reality, it's not illegal. We are doing business in that city with that name."
Still, under state anti-fraud laws, an advertisement is illegal "if it is deceiving to the most susceptible reader," said Gay Geiser-Sandoval, a deputy district attorney attached to the consumer fraud division.
Damaged by Paint
Colliard said his company hires investigators who find cars that have been damaged by stray paint particles and the like. The investigator scouts the same neighborhood for other cars with similar damage, and if enough turn up, he attempts to trace the source of the paint or other pollutant.
When the culprit is found--often a construction contractor--he is warned that car owners could sue and then is offered Dura-Shine's services in repairing the damaged cars to avoid lawsuits. If the contractor accepts, he files a claim with his insurance company and lawsuits generally are avoided, Colliard said.
Although Colliard refused to say exactly how much money his company makes at this, he did say Dura-Shine repaired damaged finishes on "thousands of cars" last year, garnering more than "$1 million" in revenues.
Colliard said he is not sure if he will use the advertisement again, since all it has brought so far is trouble. But, if he does, the advertisement will include a disclaimer cautioning that the Environmental Pollution Agency is not a part of the government.
"We don't want to give anybody a false impression of us," he said. "I'm Joe Good Citizen."