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How to Spot and Avoid Car Repair Scams

Some dishonest mechanics might charge for unnecessary ‘fixes,’ overpriced parts

Video: How to Avoid Fraudulent Auto Repairs

An SUV owner in Florida says he took his sport-utility vehicle to a repair shop a few years ago and paid $1,150 to have two new catalytic converters installed. When the engine light stayed on after the car was serviced, he took it to a local car dealership’s service department and learned that the new parts had never been installed. He says it appeared that the repair shop had simply spray-painted the old parts to look new.

“Upset is not the half of it — I was quite shocked,” says the car owner, who wants to remain anonymous because of a pending court case. “It’s hard for anybody to believe they’ve been scammed like that.”

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He’s not alone in his frustration. Many car owners complain that repair shops have tried to take advantage of them with various scams — pushing unnecessary maintenance, for example, or charging for repairs that are never made.

Some unscrupulous garages may take advantage of customers’ lack of knowledge about their cars. “There are a lot of folks who have maybe a limited understanding of how their vehicle actually operates,” says Better Business Bureau spokesperson Josh Planos. “In the confusion, you’re putting someone at a disadvantage, especially when you inject safety into the conversation: ‘Without this repair, X can happen.’”

Most repair shops are honest, however, says Scott Benavidez, owner of a third-generation repair shop in Albuquerque and chairman of the board of the Automotive Service Association, an industry group that represents independent repair shops who are willing to agree to its code of ethics. "The small number of shops involved in these types of scams usually don’t stay in business long," he adds. 

Definitive statistics on car repair and maintenance scams are hard to track. But in a July 2023 survey of 1,000 car owners, released by Pennsylvania-based truck and truck-parts reseller American Trucks,  50 percent of participants said that an auto repair shop had tried to sell them repairs that were unnecessary at the time, 35 percent said a shop had overcharged them for parts and/or labor, and 15 percent accused a shop of claiming to fix a problem but not actually doing any repairs. Thirteen percent said they were quoted one price for a repair, but then charged more when the work was done. And 11 percent said that mechanics had charged them for new parts, but actually installed used or lower quality parts.  

Americans spend a lot on their cars — common repairs average between $500 and $600, according to AAA — so those scams can be expensive. Survey respondents with luxury cars who reported scams lost an average of $1,275, while those with less pricey cars lost $764 on average.

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"What's particularly concerning is the widespread lack of confidence among consumers in identifying these scams, with nearly 1 in 5 feeling uncertain about distinguishing between legitimate and unnecessary repairs,” says Paul Knoll, marketing director at AmericanTrucks.

Over-maintenance and unneeded repairs

Even though you’ve just brought your car in for some basic maintenance, the repair shop may try to sell you additional items as well — even if you don’t really need them. Because she knows the mechanics might try to convince him to fix things unnecessarily, Planos says, “The last thing my wife tells me before I go to get the car serviced is, ‘Don’t pay for the cabin air filter to be replaced, and you don’t need new tires.'”

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Repair shops also sometimes recommend maintenance that goes beyond what car manufacturers recommend, or want to replace parts that aren’t worn out and still have useful life remaining. The American Automobile Association (AAA) calls the problem “over maintenance” and sees it as widespread.

“Many car owners get talked into over-maintaining their vehicles, which won’t hurt the car but can put an unnecessary dent in your pocketbook,” says Jim Lardear, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

One common example of over-maintenance is changing engine oil at 3,000 miles, even though most modern oils are designed to last thousands of miles longer, according to Lardear. Garages also sometimes replace transmission and power steering fluids, spark plugs and air filters that are still usable and do unnecessary wheel alignments, fuel/air induction system cleanings and air conditioning service.

Or they peddle various additives that your car doesn’t really need — and could actually harm it. “Automakers carefully design their vehicles, fluids and lubricants to provide a long service life,” Lardear says. “Adding aftermarket products can upset the chemical balance of a fluid and create problems for your vehicle.”

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Knock-off parts

But even when you’re getting a needed repair, you have to be concerned about whether the original equipment manufacturer parts for which you’re paying actually are inferior knockoffs produced by offshore counterfeiters and sold to unscrupulous garages. The impact of counterfeit auto parts entering the U.S. exceeds $1 billion, according to estimates from The Automotive Anti-Counterfeiting Council (A2C2), a collaboration of automakers working to stop the proliferation of these knockoff car parts.

In March, U.S. Customers and Border Protection officers seized a shipment of Chinese-made counterfeits en route to Philadelphia that included air bag covers, aluminum hoods, front fenders and bumpers, emblazoned with the logos of Chevrolet, Buick and Dodge.

Not only are car owners paying full price for a counterfeit part, but that part may not meet safety requirements, according to Roei Ganzarski, chief executive of Alitheon, a Redmond, Washington-based company that’s developed a technology for authenticating objects by analyzing pictures of them.

Counterfeit brake pads “may not stop your car in an emergency,” Ganzarski warns. “Fake seat belts or airbags may not save your life when you rely upon them to do so."

Spotting counterfeit parts is difficult, according to A2C2. “The best approach is to know and trust the source of the parts or the repair shop that is providing them,” the council advises on its website.“Unfortunately, yes, there’s always someone out there trying to make a cheaper part that looks just like the real one,” says Julie Massaro, executive director of the ASA. “What our ASA shops do is be sure that they buy from a reputable distributor or third-party, aftermarket distribution outlet or even directly from the original car manufacturer. That way they know they are getting a quality part at the best price and not a cheap facsimile.”

How to avoid car-repair scams

Consumer and automotive experts offer these tips:

  • Consult your car’s manual. Manuals typically include a checklist of routine maintenance for your car and when to have those services performed at a garage. That schedule can vary depending upon the make and model of the vehicle, so it’s important to use the manual for your particular car, according to Lardear.
  • Investigate the repair shop before you take your car there. “Check out the company’s rating on the Better Business Bureau website, and do an internet search to see if it has any complaints from consumers or other red flags,” says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “An easy way is to type the company’s name and the words ‘complaints’ or ‘reviews’ after the name.”
  • Test a new shop with minor stuff first. “Consider testing out a new repair location on small maintenance or repair items, like an oil change, tires or brake job that will show their commitment to customer satisfaction, attention to detail and their repair skills,” AAA’s Lardear suggests.
  • If you don’t know cars, get some help. For those who don’t look under the hood too often, “bring someone with you who’s knowledgeable about cars, to listen to what the mechanic tells you," Nofziger recommends.
  • Get it on the record. Ask for a detailed description of the repairs that the garage is proposing to do to your car, including the price. “Definitely get an estimate in writing before you agree to any work,” Nofziger says. “And if you’re not comfortable, it’s OK to walk away.” Planos says an estimate should include a description of the repairs, the cost of parts and labor, and estimated time that it will take to complete the work. If the work involves a costly major overhaul, he suggests getting multiple bids.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.