Jul. 23--Charles E. Perry Jr. charged Margaret Nettles nearly $2,500 for repairs to her vehicle that he never made. She drove in with a 2001 Ford Explorer with a slipping transmission, and drove off with a slipping transmission. And exhaust problems. And a broken front-wheel drive.
     Nettles was hot.
     So when Perry was sentenced this month to 10 years in jail, Nettles couldn't have been happier. Justice was served.
     "I can't stand a cheater, a liar and a thief," said Nettles, a 46-year-old Hampton resident.
     After an FBI investigation, Perry was charged in March with ripping off customers and suppliers and for stealing and misusing identity information belonging to customers of his "tune and lube" auto repair businesses, including the All Tune and Lube that Nettles visited on West Mercury Boulevard.
     Perry, a Suffolk resident, was charged in a 12-count federal indictment. In a plea agreement in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, he accepted responsibility for two counts --wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
     Perry was also ordered to pay back more than $609,000 in restitution to 32 individuals and 30 companies he defrauded. He also had to hand over his Suffolk residence, one custom motorcycle and two Harley-Davidsons, and a Mercedes-Benz roadster to settle his debts.
     Perry, who's being held at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk, could not be reached Tuesday. His wife and attorney both declined to comment.
     So what exactly did Perry do?
     In the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Krask:
     "He stole identities. He stole credit card numbers. He impersonated his victims (on paper and during telephone calls) when applying for merchant accounts with credit card payment processing firms. He obtained cash advances in the victims' names and then busted out of repayment agreements. He double-billed customers' credit cards. He charged customers' credit cards for work and services he did not provide. He used a customer's credit card number to pay for bus fare and a hotel room for a prostitute. He ruined customers' automobiles. He ripped off suppliers and other businesses. ... Perry regularly created and used a variety of false documents, including driver's licenses, city business licenses, utility bills, and State Corporation Commission records."
     And that's not all.
     He lied about it. He blamed errors on an employee who didn't exist.
     He was taken to court by about 20 customers who won judgments totaling more than $84,000.
     But he just kept doing it.
     Substance abuse
     Born and raised in the Baltimore area, Perry, 46, is married and has four children. He graduated high school in 1980, got married at the age of 18 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, serving until receiving a general discharge in 1983, according to court documents submitted by his lawyer.
     After getting out of the military, Perry worked for All Tune International, a Millersville, Md.-based company, at various independently owned and operated All Tune and Lube centers.
     His first brush with the law came in the mid-1980s. He was convicted of passing bad checks, possessing cocaine and conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana, according to court documents.
     In 1990, he moved to Virginia and obtained an All Tune and Lube franchise.
     In 2002, Perry was convicted of three counts of unlawfully obtaining documents from the Department of Motor Vehicles and received a suspended sentence. He was convicted of obtaining money by false pretenses in June 2003 and placed on unsupervised probation for five years.
     It was while on probation that Perry began his latest criminal shenanigans. And he hadn't kicked the substance-abuse problem. He used powder cocaine and "drank alcohol to excess on a consistent basis until the time of his arrest," his attorney wrote.
     And listen to what his customers had to say about him:
     "Because of Mr. Perry's crimes I had $5,000.00 stolen from me, was forced to purchase a new car, had my identity stolen twice, lost time from a new job, had my plans to save money for a house ruined and am currently seeking a second job," former customer Robert V. Miller wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. "Being a newly graduated college student, my future plans have been greatly altered because of Charles Perry's crimes."
     Tom and Jackie Hoefs wrote: "We are still making credit card payments to pay off our debt incurred to have nothing to show for it. Our money was used to line the pockets of a person that my husband could adequately describe (based on 20 years in the Navy) that would not be appropriate wording for this letter."
     And from Sharon A. Stone: "Where does that leave us with this busted, broke down, engine light still on, fume invaded vehicle? What happens to our warranty? Who are we able to take it to, to be properly fixed after paying $5,855.55 and the work was still not done? Mr. Perry has made it hard for us in the future to ever be able to trust a single mechanic again. Every time we will need work on a vehicle we will go and get multiple opinions, which will end up being costly in itself, and still very doubtful and leery of the one we do choose. ... Not a day goes by that we do not think of how (we were) deceived, mistreated and taken advantage of by this man."
     In all, officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office think Perry ripped off more than 50 people.
     And more victims surfaced from the media coverage of Perry's sentencing.
     This case is closed, but the U.S. Attorney's Office victim witness coordinator will take calls about the case, a spokeswoman said. That phone number is 441-6331.
     Getting justice
     Nettles' run-in with Perry happened in July 2006, when she took her vehicle to two businesses to get estimates.
     "I felt like I had done the 'consumery' thing," she said. "Little did I know that I should've gone to the Better Business Bureau first -- and I will, from now on, no doubt."
     She picked Perry, who quoted her $1,095. A month later, he charged her $2,475 and didn't fix a thing. In fact, he made it worse, cutting transmission lines, which were metal, and replacing them with rubber hoses that will eventually melt, she said.
     Nettles was livid. She called her credit card company to get the charge refunded. She called the Better Business Bureau. The bureau told her they had fielded so many complaints on him that she'd have to call the Office of Consumer Affairs in Richmond.
     So she called them, too.
     What makes her so mad is that Perry had been doing this for a long time and was not held responsible.
     Nettles filed a civil lawsuit in Hampton to cover the cost of getting repairs. She won an $866 judgment that Perry has yet to pay. He didn't even show up for court, she said.
     Then Nettles found out about the federal case.
     She called the U.S. Attorney's Office, talked to the FBI and even testified at his sentencing.
     "I was pumped. I was stoked, only because I was happy to see that he was getting justice," Nettles said. "What goes around, comes around."
     If she learned anything from this, it's to be a better-informed consumer.
     From now on, she'll check companies' reputations with the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs for any big purchases, including auto mechanics and contractors, she said. "People need to watch out for folks like that. It's a shame," Nettles said. "I never felt like that before. Maybe I was really naive. But I'm not anymore."
     Auto shop tips from the Better Business Bureau
     --If you have a problem with your car while it's still under warranty, follow the manufacturer's requirements, which might include having repairs made at an authorized, franchised dealership, to keep your warranty in effect.
     --If your car is no longer under warranty and you're looking for a qualified, independent repair shop, ask friends and family for recommendations. Check with your Better Business Bureau about the shop's reliability.
     --Look for shops that display certification, such as the Automotive Service Excellence Seal. ASE certification indicates that some or all of the technicians have met basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas. Make sure the certificates are recently obtained.
     --Always get an estimate for parts and labors. Make sure the estimate states that the shop will contact you for approval before performing any work exceeding a specified amount of time or money.
     --The Virginia Automobile Repair Facilities Act allows consumers to request a written estimate for automotive repairs from a business before the work is done. If repair costs exceed $25, the business must give you a written estimate upon your request, unless your insurance company writes its own estimates. When a written estimate is required, no repair work may be started until you have authorized it. The repair bill must list the charges for parts and labor separately, and the final repair bill may not exceed the written estimate by more than 10 percent unless you authorize additional work. You have a right to inspect all replaced parts, and the business must offer to return all replaced parts if requested in advance of repair.
     --When you pick up your car, ask the service manager to explain all work completed and all replacements made. Also, ask that any major new parts that have been installed be pointed out to you, if possible.
     --If the shop guarantees its work, get the guarantee in writing. Be sure that your bill itemizes the repairs so if a problem occurs later, you can prove that the item in question is covered by the guarantee.
     Source: Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org.
     When you have to go to a garage
     Tips from the Better Business Bureau will help when your car needs repairs. A9

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