Steer Clear of Auto Repair Scams

If you feel frustrated or intimidated whenever you take your car in for repairs, you're not alone. Although most auto repair shops are legitimate, some unscrupulous operators will rip off inexperienced car owners.
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If you feel frustrated or intimidated whenever you take your car in for repairs, you're not alone. According to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau, auto repair fraud consistently ranks among the top consumer complaints they receive.

Although most auto repair shops are legitimate, some unscrupulous operators will rip off inexperienced car owners by performing unnecessary or unauthorized repairs, substituting counterfeit or used replacement parts, or even doing such shoddy work that lives are endangered.

Here are tips for becoming a more informed consumer and a few common scams to avoid:

Ask around. Perhaps the smartest thing you can do is to have a trusted repair shop already lined up before you need one. Ask friends or your auto insurance company for recommendations, or search the Better Business Bureau's website for accredited businesses. Some people prefer to use a mechanic who specializes in their brand of car.

Once you've identified several good candidates, check with your state Attorney General's office or local consumer protection agency to see if any complaints have been filed against them. Look for mechanics currently certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) or who belong to your insurer's authorized repair network. Also, check your car's warranty -- if it's still in force, you may be required to use only authorized dealerships.

Another good search strategy is to try a different shop each time you need an oil change or other routine service until you find one where you're comfortable -- that way the stakes won't be so high when you need serious help.

Get it in writing. If your car needs major work, gather several general estimates for comparison. (You may be charged if these estimates require dismantling the car.) Once you've chosen a shop, ask for a detailed estimate before you authorize repairs. Make sure there are no blank sections that could later be filled in; and take your signed copy in case you need it for comparison later.

Specify that you must be called to grant permission before additional repairs outside the original scope of work are made (another way dishonest shops ream their customers). Make sure the work order clearly specifies:
  • Repairs to be done.
  • All fees, including parts, labor, storage, loaner car, etc. Some shops charge a flat fee for labor on certain repairs, while others charge for actual hours worked. If the latter, ask for hourly rates -- a certified mechanic should cost more than someone who rotates your tires.
  • Whether new, reconditioned, or used parts will be used. Some manufacturers void their warranties if original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts aren't used.
  • Acceptable payment methods.
  • Completion date.
  • Diagnostic or reassembly charges if you decide to get a second opinion or have the work done elsewhere. (Hint: Using a shop that does only diagnostic work and doesn't sell parts or repairs may give you a more objective opinion on needed repairs.)

When you pick up your vehicle, make sure the repair bill contains an itemized explanation of all work completed and parts used. (Ask them to show you the work done and replaced parts.) Also have the bill spell out any guaranteed items (including exclusions), in case problems occur later and you need contractual proof.

Watch out for these common scams:
  • They give you a verbal estimate then charging a higher price. Always get it in writing.
  • Bait and switch: A shop lures you in with low-cost specials (oil change, brake inspection, etc.), then pads the work order with other repairs you don't want or need. If in doubt, have the initial work done and get a second opinion on the rest, unless there's an immediate safety issue.
  • Telling you the shop will provide services covered under the car's warranty free of charge and then charging you for them. (Always read your warranty carefully.)
  • Dishonest mechanics have been known to inflict intentional damage during an inspection in order to boost needed repairs.
  • They don't want to return replaced parts to you, which could mean the work wasn't actually done, or they used inferior parts. (Keep in mind that there could be discarded parts lying around that they could pass off as yours.)
  • Going against your car manufacturer's recommendations. If your manual recommends getting an oil change every 10,000 miles but the mechanic says every 3,000, make sure there's a good reason.
  • Advertising free towing or loaner cars, then charging for those services.
  • High-pressure sales tactics. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for expediting repairs, but probe the salesperson about why not doing so would compromise your car's safety, or why delaying it would cost more money.
  • Offers to waive the deductible -- for example, offering to install a used part and bill your insurance company for a new one, passing along the illegal cost savings to you. This is insurance fraud and could land you in a world of hurt. It's also an indication of how they do business.

Just because you don't completely understand what goes on under the hood doesn't mean you can't protect yourself against auto repair scams. To learn more, visit the FTC's comprehensive Auto Repair Basics site.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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