It is a lonely beat that Zefferino Lopez pounds, a singular life that other cops might regard as . . . well . . . funny.
But if you repair appliances or electronic gizmos, you're not laughing when Lopez walks through the door of your shop. You give him the grudging respect you would a Columbo or a Kojak.
Because Lopez is a policeman of sorts. He's a gray-suited investigator for the tiny state Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, a Joe Friday-like gumshoe on the lookout for screwdriver-packing tricksters who each year rip off thousands of unsuspecting Californians through fraudulent appliance repairs.
One of eight such investigators statewide, Lopez uses tactics right out of the police book: He conducts undercover stings of suspect repair shops, planting bogus TVs that have been previously dismantled in a state lab, each part marked as evidence for a possible court trial.
He's a hound on the trail of the Repairmen From Hell--unscrupulous operators who do business from post office boxes, slipshod workers who bungle jobs so badly they turn refrigerators into steamy saunas where soda cans explode like blasting caps.
Lopez even talks in cop jargon, using phrases like video cameras or stereos "coming up dirty" and saying that if good repairmen go bad, he's going to have to "take them down."
Because when it comes to phony fix-it jobs, this detective trusts no one, not even the Maytag repairman.
"I get around," he says of a patrol territory stretching from West Hollywood north to Santa Barbara. "And I tell these electronic and appliance repair guys that they had better watch their backs. Because the next television they repair might be one of mine."
Often, he plays the sucker, the suburban homeowner who doesn't know a picture tube from a volume control, rigging TV sets and appliances with simple defects that should be spotted and fixed in minutes.
Trouble follows if he gets a bill for an elaborate repair the appliance didn't need.
Lopez, a former TV repairman, is retiring this month after 23 years of looking over the shoulders of technicians paid to make gadgets work right again--a career in which he returned to his former industry to play double agent.
"This industry has a bad reputation, right there above auto mechanics in the professions people mistrust," he said. "There's a small percentage of fly-by-nighters willing to rip anybody off. They keep me in business."
Indeed, electronics is big business. American consumers last year spent an estimated $30 billion on new home electronic equipment--including televisions, VCRs and video cameras. In California alone, according to electronic industry statistics, consumers spend about another $1 billion a year on repairs.
And when their equipment fails, owners look for quick solutions: They scan the telephone book for an easy reference to a neighborhood repair technician--not all of whom are Boy Scouts.
That's where Lopez comes in.
Unlike the public--known as laymen in the electronic and appliance repair industry--Lopez does not hear some difficult foreign language when technicians start talking about circuit breakers and display monitors.
"My background in the business puts the shop owner at ease, he knows that I know what I'm talking about," says the 60-year-old Arizona native. "On the other hand, he can't pull any fast ones. I've caught so many repairman in misstatements, where their eyes get real wide and they say 'Oh, so you know about repairs.' "
Operating on a shoestring $1.6-million annual budget, the appliance repair bureau employs no taxpayer dollars--instead using funds from the $130 annual registration assessed the state's 8,260 repair shops.
Still, investigators like Lopez--all of whom have a background in electronic repair--get results.
Acting largely on complaints, the bureau last year claimed $113,000 in refunds for overcharged consumers. Misdemeanor criminal charges were brought against 15 people. Three of them went to jail, with sentences ranging up to three years. An additional nine had their operating licenses revoked due to incompetence or negligence.
Begun in 1964 in response to pressure from electronic and appliance repair specialists looking for government help in policing themselves, the bureau has the backing of an industry that applauds the arrests of crooked operators.
"People should realize these types are a minority who give the rest of us a bad name," said Eloy Fierro, president of the California State Electronics Assn. and owner of Consumer Video Service in North Hollywood.
"Those guys should be hung, no doubt about it. . . . We want them closed down as badly as consumers do."
That includes operators such as Joseph Jacob Arnold, whose "A Speedy Major Appliance Repair" of Studio City was the object of at least 37 complaints from consumers.