Anyone who owns a car will eventually find themselves in need of car repair. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that consumers lose tens of billions of dollars due to car repair fraud each year. While most repair shops are honest, because the average car owner does not know enough about auto mechanics to protect himself or herself, it is not difficult for unethical mechanics to convince a car owner that unneeded repairs are necessary.
How can I protect myself against car repair fraud?
Before you choose a mechanic, ask your friends, family members or co-workers to recommend repair shops they trust. In addition, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints against the shop you choose.
If you are a member of the American Automobile Association, use a repair shop they endorse. These shops must meet rigorous standards and guarantee their work for AAA members. Moreover, AAA will arbitrate any disputes between its members and approved shops.
Look for shops that display an Automotive Service Excellence Seal. This indicates that some or all of the technicians have met basic standards of knowledge and competence in specific technical areas.
If your car needs major repairs, find a dealer or repair shop that specializes in the type of repair needed.
If your car is still under warranty, follow the manufacturer’s requirements. In some cases, you must have the repair work done at an authorized, franchised dealership to keep your warranty in effect.
Write down a complete description of your car’s problems and give it directly to the mechanic. Do not diagnose the problem yourself.
Make sure that the repair shop is qualified to make the necessary repair. Verify that the shop has experience working on the same type of vehicle as yours and whether they have done this type of repair before.
Insist on a written estimate that includes work orders, part prices, labor rates and warranty information.
Ask the mechanic to contact you before performing any repair that you have not already agreed to in a work order.
If you are not satisfied with the estimated cost of a car repair, get a second opinion.
Find out about the repair shop’s guarantee policy and any warranty on the repair. Get a copy of the warranty in writing before you authorize the repair. Ask that your bill itemize all the repairs completed so that if a problem occurs later, you can prove that it is covered by the warranty or guarantee.
Ask for old parts back; then you do not have to worry about the mechanic charging you for a replacement part and not putting it on your car.
When you pick up your car, ask the service manager to explain all work completed and all replacements made.
TIP: Before you have a problem, follow the maintenance guidelines found in your owner’s manual. Many car repairs can be avoided by simply taking better care of your car.
What is a repair order?
A repair order is actually a contract which describes the work that will be done on your car and authorizes the mechanic to make the repairs outlined.
It should include:
- the make, model and year of your car;
- the mileage on your car;
- the date of the repair;
- a description of the problem;
- a listing of the parts to be used and the charges for the parts;
- an estimate of the amount of labor necessary to fix your car;
- the rate to be charged for the work—either hourly or a flat rate;
- your name, address and telephone number.
SIDEBAR: In some states, if you have not signed the repair order, you do not have to pay for the repairs.
How can I prevent unnecessary repairs?
One way to avoid this problem is to let the mechanic know that you want to see old parts replaced during the repair. This puts the mechanic on notice that you are watching what they are doing.
TIP: Some states require mechanics to give you any parts they have removed from your car unless the warranty requires they be sent back to the manufacturer.
Another way to avoid unnecessary repairs is pay $30 or $40 to have your car checked at a diagnostic center that is not affiliated with the repair shop. These shops have no reason to recommend unnecessary repairs.
When I picked up my car, I was charged more than the estimate. What do I do?
First of all, question the bill. Find out why the final charge was more. Have the repair shop write out the reasons for the increased cost and keep this record with the work estimate, final bill and other paperwork.
Next, pay the bill, but make it clear that you are doing so under protest. Then, file a complaint with your state attorney general’s office and the local branch of the Better Business Bureau. If the repair shop is endorsed by the AAA, be sure to contact the organization. If your complaint is egregious enough or joined by others, the garage may lose the AAA’s seal of approval. You can also file suit against the mechanic. State consumer laws prohibit unfair and deceptive practices in auto repair. Mechanics who mislead, deceive or make misrepresentations to consumers may be subject to penalties.
I feel that I have been ripped off. Why should I bother to pay the bill?
In most states, if you refuse to pay the bill, even if you disagree with it, the repair shop has the right to keep your car until they are paid. If you choose not to pay, the repair shop may ultimately sell your car to recover the costs of repair.
CAUTION: Do not pay by check just to get your car back and then stop payment on the check. The mechanic may then have a right to repossess your car.