How to avoid five common car repair rip-offs

Linda Melone

Bringing your car in for repairs anywhere -- be it body work or engine repair -- puts you at the mercy of the technicians. Unfortunately, not all of them are honest.

Shady collision repair shops are key contributors to car insurance fraud, according to Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. "Everyone is the victim of this illegal activity, paying in the form of higher insurance premiums," Worters says.

Unless you're a car repair professional, it's difficult to know whether repairs are warranted, says Matt Allen, owner of Virginia Auto Service in Phoenix and a member of the Better Business Bureau's Automotive Advisory Committee. However, you can lower your risk of becoming a target for unscrupulous shops by asking your car insurance company for referrals, Allen says.

To earn bonuses, some automotive technicians perform unneeded repairs.
Be on the lookout for these five common car repair rip-offs:

1. The shop bills your insurance company for new parts but actually uses old ones.

Some shops may not use the parts they say they're going to use or they bill the car insurance company for new parts but use aftermarket parts, Allen says. (Aftermarket parts are made by a company other than the original manufacturer.) Other shops may use counterfeit parts, which wear out more quickly than genuine parts.

What you can do: Unless you're in the automotive business, you won't be able to tell the difference, Allen says. His best advice: Find a technician you can trust. If you're knowledgeable about cars, ask the technician to show you the parts being replaced, as well as the ones being installed.

2. Technicians perform unneeded work to earn bonuses.

Some repair shops pay fat bonuses to technicians and service managers for selling maintenance work to customers, says Greg Burchette, owner of Bridgewater Motorworks in Bridgewater, N.J. That means they may tell you it's time to replace your shocks and struts at the 50,000-mile mark, when those parts are supposed to be replaced when they wear out, not every 50,000 miles, Burchette says.

What you can do: Consult your owner's manual and know which parts require maintenance based on mileage -- and which do not.

3. You're charged for repairs that weren't done.

Your car insurance may cover some damage to the transmission. The repair shop changes the transmission fluid and filters, adjusts the transmissions shift points (the times the transmission needs to shift to another gear) in the transmission and charges $3,000 for the work. But there's one problem: The original problem still isn't fixed.

What you can do: Ask for documentation. Allen says every work order should include the "three C's" -- complaint, cause and correction. The "complaint" is done during the initial write-up and points out the problem, such as a rattling noise. The "cause" and "correction" include the results of testing on your car, with recommendations for "correcting" the problem. A customer sees the last two "C's" on the final invoice from the shop. "It shows why they did what they did and holds the shop accountable," Allen says.

4. The shop pulls a "bait and switch."

A price that's too good to be true usually is, Allen says. If a shop advertises a $9.99 oil change, it's probably a way to lure you in. "You can't even buy the oil for that price," he says. The shop likely will honor that price, but may overcharge you for an oil filter to make up the difference, for example.

What you can do: Be cautious of advertised prices that seem unrealistic. A "bargain" may turn out costing you more in the end.

5. The shop offers to waive your deductible.

If you have $3,000 worth of damage to your car and you carry a $500 deductible, your insurance company pays the $2,500 difference. Some shops will try to get your business by offering to include the deductible on your estimate, sending the insurance company a fraudulently inflated bill.

What you can do: Realize this practice is illegal and steer clear. You should never hire a shop that's offering to include the deductible in your estimate as a way to get your business.

Experts offer these tips for finding a reputable car repair shop:

  • Look for a shop that employs certified and trained technicians, such as those who carry designations like National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, ASE Certified or ASE Certified Master Technician.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Hunt for a shop that guarantees its work.
  • Check out a shop's reputation on consumer review sites such as Yelp.com.
  • Don't base your decision on price alone. It may cost a little more to go to a shop that uses good parts, employs certified technicians and guarantees its work, but that higher price can result in safety and peace of mind.

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