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Flood-damaged cars hit lots

Action alert: Vehicles damaged by the recent flooding in Texas are starting to show up in the nation's used car lots. According to a release issued by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Texas officials have said that as many as 50,000 vehicles were damaged or abandoned during Tropical Storm Allison in the Houston area alone. Many of these are now appearing on the used car market. While severely flood-damaged vehicles should be issued salvage titles, many are not. Both Texas and Florida officials therefore warn buyers to beware and offer these tips on steering clear of flood-damaged vehicles:

Have a trusted mechanic inspect the car. Most flood damage (and other problems) can be detected during a careful inspection by a knowledgeable person.

A "great deal" on a newer car _ one that's less than 5 years old _ can be a red flag. Check under the mat in the trunk and underneath the dashboard for mud or debris, indicators of flooding.

Ask to see the vehicle's title and check for remarks that the vehicle was salvaged by an insurance company. Note that it may be too early for this information to be included on the titles of vehicles damaged in the recent Texas floods. Call the Texas Department of Transportation helpline at (512) 465-7611 for current information.

CarFax, a vehicle history service, can do a title search that provides information on whether a given vehicle has been in a flood or serious accident, salvaged, recalled by the manufacturer or had its odometer rolled back.

Information on lemon histories, junked titles, state emissions/inspection results, lien activity and/or vehicle use (taxi, rental, lease, etc.) may also be included. The cost is $19.95 for an unlimited number of vehicle reports, each of which will include the cities and states in which the car has been registered (excluding Rhode Island), but not the names of previous owners. Call (800) 346-3846. Reports, for which the vehicle identification number (VIN) is required, may also be ordered through the Internet at www.carfax.com.

Buy from someone you know and trust, or from a reputable dealership, which may offer a warranty or buy-back provision.

Drape disagreement

I had my custom-made drapes dry cleaned for the first time by East Bay Dry Cleaners. I picked them up on May 21, and when I tried to hang them up, they had shrunk about 4 to 6 inches and no longer matched the length of the sheer curtains behind them. I contacted the cleaners, and one of its employees came over to my house to examine them. She measured the curtains and agreed they were too short. The drapes were returned to the cleaners.

The plant kept my drapes for a month. Finally I was told that East Bay was not at fault because the lining had not shrunk with the drapes, and I should return them to the store that made them. I questioned why it took a month to let me know this and suggested that the cleaners might have altered them so the lining would match the drapes.

I picked them up on June 4 and decided to write to you after calling the owner of East Bay Dry Cleaners all day and not getting a call back. I took the drapes to the department store that made them; I was told that no drapes had ever been returned for shrinkage and that the chemical used by the cleaners must be at fault. The drapes are over a year old, and since I can't find my papers from the department store to return them, the store said to go back to the cleaners. Please help. Margarita Smith

Response: Debbie Cobb, office manager for East Bay Dry Cleaners in Seminole, said you brought your drapes to the Dunedin location on May 21 and signed a release that does not hold the cleaners responsible for shrinkage due to improper preshrinkage from the manufacturer.

You picked up the drapes on May 30, she said, and returned the drapes to the store on June 4, telling the cleaners' employee Joanne that the drapes had shrunk by at least 12 inches. Cobb said Joanne told you she had no authority to do anything, but she would go to your home. Cobb said her opinion was that the drapes did not appear to have been made to fit the window you showed her.

Nonetheless, the drapes were sent to the plant for the dry cleaning manager, Eddie Murgasen, to evaluate. He determined the drapes showed no signs of shrinkage, Cobb said. Drapes are lined with a different material than the drapes are made of. If drapes shrink, the lining does not hang evenly or hangs lower than the drape. The drape would also be puckered and distorted. There was no sign of this on your drapes.

Julie Smith, the customer service manager, tried to contact you on June 12 and 14. She did not leave a message because she is at different locations each day, Cobb said.

Julie did reach you on June 16 and explained that the drapes had been cleaned in a standard dry cleaning solution in keeping with the label that read to dry clean only. Cobb said Julie told you there were no signs of shrinkage. You replied that it took the cleaners 30 days to tell you that.

Cobb said Julie explained to you that you should return them to the store where you had purchased them if you truly believed they had shrunk. If they were new and custom made, the store should have a record of the transaction, even if you could not find your original receipt. The store should also have the original measurements of the drapes.

After Julie spoke to you, Cobb said the drapes were returned to the Dunedin location on June 18, and the owner tried to contact you the following day. She said that from the time the drapes were picked up for evaluation, the cleaners had them for 10 business days.

East Bay Dry Cleaners is a member of International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring, Md., an association of professional dry cleaners and launderers, said Cobb. It has trained professionals who analyze items when there is a customer complaint such as yours. Cobb said the cleaners will be happy to send the drapes and pay for the cost to have Fabricare analyze them. If Fabricare finds East Bay Dry Cleaners at fault, Cobb said you will be compensated for your drapes.

We do not know of any instances in which lined drapes shrink without the evidence of unevenness or puckering to which Cobb referred. In her response to Action, she included a bulletin from Fabricare which supports this. If you still feel that shrinkage occurred during the cleaning process, we suggest you take up East Bay's offer to have the drapes analyzed by Fabricare. If you decide instead to seek recourse from the store that made them, we agree with Cobb that it most likely still has a record of your order, given that you indicate the drapes are relatively new. You may also be able to provide proof of purchase through your own bank or credit card records.

If you have a question for Action, or your attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request for Action. Names will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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