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Steer Clear of Car Repair Rip-Offs

An owner's manual for finding an honest mechanic

car repair scams

John Vogl

Don't let unnecessary car repairs drain you of your cash.

Auto repair complaints consistently rank among the top consumer grievances. So don't get taken for a ride. Watch for these warning signs of unnecessary and overpriced service by mercenary mechanics.

Diagnostic dialect

Many rip-offs are the work of outright crooks who, betting that you (like most drivers) are clueless about what's under the hood, knowingly try to sell unnecessary repairs. They snow you with terminology you don't understand. But sometimes inflated bills come from car mechanics who don't know what the problem is and replace various parts in hopes of finding a resolution.

Protect yourself from them by listening to both your gut and the mechanic's words, says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs with the Consumer Federation of America and author of The Car Book.

Auto repair quotes should come with an explanation that, in clear and simple terms, lays out "exactly what work and parts are needed, their cost and how the problem was detected," Gillis says. "Beware of guys who say 'I know the problem and you need X' without saying how they came to that conclusion — via a computer diagnosis, test drive, inspection on the lift, some combination — or can't easily describe the planned course of action."

Modern vehicles contain more computing power than the moon-reaching Apollo spacecraft, so you should insist on a high-tech check for dashboard warnings and other drive-impacting issues. This computerization removes a lot of the guesswork.

Oil change add-ons

Many repair shops barely break even on routine services like oil changes, so you can be confident that a mechanic will give your car a thorough inspection looking for other possible jobs. "Be suspicious if you're handed a long list of recommended add-ons if your car is running fine," warns Richard Hall of the Melbourne, Fla., branch of AAMCO, a full-service repair chain.

A common con that can pad a bill by hundreds of dollars is the "wallet flush." The mechanic changes the radiator coolant and the fluids for your power steering, automatic transmission and brakes, when your car doesn't need it. Many newer cars, for instance, have extended-life coolant that lasts up to 100,000 miles. Make the owner's manual your guide to all scheduled maintenance.

Front-end fraud

Unless you notice handling problems, be suspicious if a mechanic says your car needs front-end work like an alignment or new ball joints, advises Austin Davis, an auto repair shop owner who runs trustmymechanic.com, which offers free advice on car repairs. Why be suspicious? Most customers can't easily locate or identify those parts. And with ominous warnings from the mechanic about steering loss, the repairs have a high scare factor. If your car seems to be driving fine, get a second opinion.

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So how to get that second opinion — and find a first-rate, honest car repair shop?

Referrals: Friends and neighbors are the usual go-to sources, but consider calling your car insurer for its list of recommended body shops in your area. "Most body shops also do car repairs, and if not, they deal with mechanics they trust," Davis says.

Visits: The best car repair shops are usually local businesses looking for a long-term, full-service relationship. The cars you see awaiting repairs should be similar to yours — in age and, ideally, make and model, Davis says. Go elsewhere if the shop's parking lot is full of older vehicles (indicating a lack of computerized technology) or municipal fleet vehicles (suggesting the shop made the lowest contract bid), or if you notice that cars sit for days before being serviced.

Compare prices: Get price estimates at consumerreports.org/cars/repair, repairpal.com/estimator, automd.com/repaircost or openbay.com. Expect to pay at least 20 percent more at a dealership. Keep in mind that reputable full-service independent and franchise shops can handle most anything except recalls, warranty repairs, post-warranty fixes offered under a good-will program and repairs to high-tech electrical and AC systems.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.


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