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Where to Turn When Cleaner Ruins Clothes

April 22, 1993|GARY LIBMAN

The $300 green sweater highlighted her red hair and brought compliments--until the dry cleaner returned it with spots.

Then, in trying to remove the blemishes, the cleaner ruined the sweater, Molly-Ann Leikin says.

When the cleaner refused many requests to pay for the garment, the Brentwood woman complained to the county Department of Consumer Affairs.

About 100 people filed such grievances about dry cleaning last year with the department and the Better Business Bureau of the Southland. The agencies do not have regulatory power over dry cleaners; they mediate the disputes. If that fails, the agencies may encourage consumers to take their cases to small-claims court.

The Better Business Bureau also sends damaged clothing to the International Fabricare Institute lab in Maryland to determine whether the dry cleaner or garment manufacturer is responsible for the problems.

The Consumer Affairs Department refers serious cases, such as false advertising or charges for work not done, to the district attorney for prosecution.

"Loss and damage of clothing are the majority (of complaints) that we receive," says Pastor Herrera Jr., director of the county consumer department. Those who file complaints "feel that what they are getting back from the cleaner in compensation (for damage) is not adequate."

"About 40% of all complaints are closed as positive or assumed satisfied," says Lona Luckett, operations director for the main Better Business Bureau office in Cypress.

The Greater Los Angeles Dry Cleaners Assn. ((800) 773-GLAD) and the California Fabricare Institute ((408) 252-1746), another trade group, also try to mediate complaints against their members. If unsuccessful, the groups may also recommend that the consumer file a small-claims case.

There is no state board regulating dry cleaners. The state Board of Dry Cleaning and Fabric Care was abolished in 1987.

Jackie Smith, president of the Greater Los Angeles Dry Cleaners Assn., says that move may have hurt her industry.

"Because we are deregulated, there are a lot of people opening dry-cleaning businesses who shouldn't be dry cleaners," she says. "They're inexperienced and it's a reflection on the good cleaners."

Dry cleaners need only register and post a $5,000 bond against consumer complaints with the state Trade and Commerce Agency to operate. A consumer who wins a judgment against a dry cleaner can attach the bond.

Meanwhile, Leikin gave up short of going to court after trying for months to resolve her claim. "They obviously weren't going to reimburse me," she says.

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