THE BLOG

Avoiding Auto Repair Scams

09/02/2014 03:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2014
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Typically, an auto repair scam involves advising you that you need unnecessary repairs, not doing the stated repairs, or increasing the bill by adding repairs after you get a quote. Commonly auto repair shops can get away with these extra repairs and charges, because consumers generally don't know very much about what's going on inside their car.

But what about doing extra unneeded repairs, when an auto repair shop leads you to think that your car will be okay to drive after they complete the repairs, but they don't warn you of the risks if you drive it. That's what happened to me, which led me to think about the problems pervasive in the auto repair industry, though most repair services are quite reputable.

In brief, what happened to me is this. I took my car in for an inspection at a service center, because it was an authorized service for my type of car, which I had for over 30 years. When I brought in my car, I told the manager I wanted to be sure my car, with about 140,000 miles, would be safe for a 500 miles trip I was planning from the Bay Area to Las Vegas, which gets very hot during the summer. After the inspection, the manager said the car would be fine, so I got the air conditioning system fixed, a repair I wouldn't have made if not assured the car would be okay. But then the car broke down my third day there due to the failure of the radiator and coolant system, and even if I got these repairs, a big chain repair service advised me of a 50-50 chance of another break down due to gasket and engine problems. So rather than risk a potentially deadly breakdown in the desert, besides the cost of more repairs, I bought a new car I couldn't really afford. Then, when I told the service owner what happened, he claimed no responsibility for anything, even the unnecessary repairs I ordered because of his manager's assurances my car would be safe. If he mentioned any risk, I would have left my car at home, flown to Vegas, and rented a car.

This situation led me to look at auto repair scams generally and consider what consumers can do to avoid them.

One discovery is that auto repair complaints are the largest type of consumer grievances, and many involve car repair scams. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, consumers lose "tens of billions of dollars each year due to faulty or unnecessary car repairs."

A key reason for this high complaint rate is that many people like me know little or nothing about their cars and don't understand what is being done to them, so they can easily be persuaded to get repairs they don't need or be subjected to other scams, such as getting a "bad" part that isn't really bad replaced or not having the agreed upon work done.

Even some of the biggest auto repairs chains have been found cheating customers, such as revealed by a four-month undercover investigation of Jiffy Lube by NBC4 News in 2013. Though an NBC4 exposé seven years earlier had led Jiffy Lube to apologize for cheating customers and promise changes through its system, in its 2013 the NBC4 team uncovered new tricks and tactics, some violations of the law. For example, the I-Team's hidden cameras discovered Jiffy Lube employees charging for repairs that were never done, rigging diagnostic tests to say the car needed repairs, or urging customers to get unnecessary repairs.
In fact, the investigators found that seven out of eleven Jiffy Lubes they went to engaged in deceptive practices, suggesting a continuing system-wide abuse at the biggest U.S. car repair chain with about 22 million customers at over 2000 franchises nationwide.

While I wasn't directly advised to get unneeded repairs, the manager's failure to advise me of the risks on a long trip after an inspection of my old car led me to get unnecessary repairs to take the trip, which led to my car's breakdown.

So what are the biggest unnecessary auto repair scams and what can you do about them? According to Angie's List, an online service that reviews local companies, one scam is claiming you have a dirty air filter, and to prove it, a mechanic will show you a black and dusty filter, but it may not be yours. Another trick is the oil change scam urging you to upgrade to premium synthetic oil. An even more expensive scam is a company giving an initial quote to investigate what's wrong and then claiming you owe money for all the repairs done and you can't get back your car until you pay. Still other scams include luring you in with low-cost specials and padding the work order with other repairs you don't need or want. Or a service might advertise a reasonably priced check-up or preventive maintenance service and then suggest expensive and unneeded repairs.

What can you do? One strategy is to check out listings on Yelp or Angie's List to see if other customers think this is a reputable service or not; and these websites can suggest other services in your area with higher ratings. The Better Business Bureau's website can be another good place to check. Or a victim can report scams to sites like My Auto Repair Advice.com , which has a Facebook page for auto repair scam stories.

Another precaution is asking for a written estimate before you authorize repairs, required in most states if a repair is over $100 or exceeds an estimate by 10 percent. Also, get guarantees in writing and don't authorize any repairs unless you are sure a repair is needed. Plus check that the work order clearly specifies the repairs to be done, along with all fees including parts and labor based on a flat rate or hourly fee. Consider getting a second opinion and asking for diagnostic or assessment charges if you do this. And if the shop says a part is bad, ask to see it or where it fits, so you avoid one of the easiest rip-offs -- claiming you need a replacement part when you don't , and even showing you a part from another car to prove it. Just seeming knowledgeable and asking questions can help you avoid many of these frauds.