published Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Consumer Watch: How to avoid an auto repair ripoff


by Ellen Phillips

I think the local auto mechanic ripped me off recently. Before my car needs another tune up (or a second opinion), what steps should I take to avoid problems like what I think I've experienced?

— Adam Auto

Dear Mr. Auto: If you'll pardon the pun -- to avoid being taken for a ride -- tips abound to protect yourself and your wallet, thanks to ShopSmart, especially if you're unfamiliar with the workings of car parts.

1 Shop around. My mantra for most expenses is really true in this instance. Your automobile, quite literally your legs in this day and time, must be reliable. Whether you need routine maintenance or a specific repair, call several dealers and independent shops to ask what they charge. Believe me, quotes can vary highly amongst them. And don't just go with the lowest figure, either. Ask for referrals from friends and colleagues, check reviews and complaints on the Internet, including Car Talk and RepairPal, and be suspicious if the business' rating is lower than an "A" with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Finally, look for a display showing the mechanic is certified with the ASE (Automotive Service Excellence), indicating that he or she has passed specialty certification tests.

2. Use the maintenance schedule in the car owner's manual and not necessarily the mechanic's evaluation. For example, when taking your vehicle in for its 30,000 mile check, perhaps the manual states the necessity for an oil change and tire rotation only; yet, the mechanic urges or scares you into other expenses, such as replacement of the engine's timing belt or the brakes. You could walk out of the garage minus several hundred extra dollars in your pocket.

3. Get the quote in writing before agreeing to any service, costly or otherwise. Make sure the mechanic or shop owner contacts you in advance to approve any unforeseen costs, such as additional labor or parts. Moreover, be certain these are guaranteed for at least one year, though many parts come with warranties that might cover a longer period. (Along this same line, write down each and every concern the mechanic should check. Describe - in writing - any sounds, smells, and all abnormalities you've noted.) Additionally, avoid needless repairs by asking to see the broken part they say you need or show you the more expensive part they promise will do the trick. In fact, if you've watched recent television shows depicting large scale scams, several starred "iffy" mechanics; always be on the alert for these less-than-honest workers.

4. Maintain good records. Whether you use an independent garage or a dealership (the latter you normally don't need unless it's a warranty or a recall issue), it's important to hang on to all auto-repair receipts and log in every service and inspection. Should you have a warranty claim and it looks like you didn't maintain your car, the dealer may deny your claim, leaving you out-of-pocket for repair costs. Including records within its pages is a great use of the owner's manual.

5. Speak up! If you have any question whatsoever that you've been victimized, either purposefully or by accident, go in person to speak with the owner/manager. If you're still out of luck, then contact your state attorney general's office, agencies at the local and state consumer protection offices, the BBB, and the Federal Trade Commission. I've personally see many dramatic changes in response when regulatory agencies get involved.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Saturday and she may be reached at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com

about Ellen Phillips...

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears on Saturdays in the Business section of the paper. An expanded version is at www.timesfreepress.com under Local Business.

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