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Southern California smog snitches are turning in their smoke-belching neighbors in record numbers this year and their tattle-tale performance may be measurably improving the air.

Calls are pouring into the 1-800-CUT-SMOG hotline of the South Coast Air Quality Management district at a rate of more than 22,000 per month this summer - almost three times last year's pace.The result: Cars, trucks and buses that spew thick clouds of smoke are getting harder to find.

"Our smog patrol on the freeways now finds itself having to look harder than ever before for violators," said Ben Shaw, senior enforcement manager for the smog-control district, which covers most of four big Southern California counties.

"We're also starting to cite intermittent smokers instead of confining ourselves to those that put out smoke for 10 consecutive seconds as we used to do."

The outpouring of pollution reports has been spurred by an ad campaign featuring billboards that show cars with dense clouds of smoke and the words "Report this crime" followed by the phone number.

When drivers call in a complaint, they're asked for the make and license plate number of the offending car and where it was spotted. If they have only part of that information, whatever they can provide is stored in a computer in case the same car is reported again.

Letters go out within a few weeks to those reported, telling them someone has noticed their pollution and that if they're spotted by police, they can be cited. Tickets for pollution violations carry fines of $100 for the first offense, plus a requirement that the smoke be cleaned up.

"Local law enforcement agencies and the California Highway Patrol will cite drivers of such vehicles," the letter reads.

As a non-police agency, the smog control district can't force anyone to fix a car. But follow-up surveys indicate more than one in every four cars reported is cleaned up voluntarily. About 5 percent of those reported are sold soon after their owners receive the warning letters.

"We can't be like Nazis and go out and bang on people's doors in the middle of the night or take their cars away," Shaw said.

"We're also tapping into a social problem, since it's the poorer people who have the oldest and dirtiest cars. But it's surprising how many people whose cars are smoking don't have any idea that they're doing it. Once they find out, there's a lot of social pressure to fix it up."

That pressure and the threat of citation if a smoking car is spotted by the local highway patrol's eight-member anti-smog unit has resulted in cleanups for more than 15,000 vehicles in the last year, Shaw said.

"We're being swamped with calls," Shaw said. "And more than 70 percent of them provide the information we need to send out a letter."

Those who fix up their own cars after getting a warning have turned out to be among the most avid finks in fingering their polluting neighbors.

"People go to all the trouble and expense of getting their car tuned and fixed up and then they see someone else belching smoke," Shaw said. "They say it makes them feel like public servants when they call us."

Although the district says an increasing number of the calls involve repeaters, so far it has sent out only one warning per car.

"But we're working on a program for contacting repeat offenders starting later this year," Shaw said.

The Los Angeles-area program, which started last July, is the first smog-snitch campaign ever attempted anywhere in America. A less ambitious effort has started in San Diego using telephone answering machines rather than live operators.

"We've had a lot of interest from other places," said Shaw. "It's a very low-budget way to eliminate a lot of polluting vehicles." His annual tab for billboards, telephone operators and warning letters will run between $150,000 and $200,000, Shaw reported.