Avoid These 5 Repair Shop Scams
Don't Get Hosed For Unneeded Fixes At Your Next Service Visit
Repairs in general are a drag—doubly so if they're for the trusty whip you rely on to get to your job, appointments and all the other commitments and delights that make up that little thing called your life.
Of course, routine maintenance can go a long way toward avoiding a trip to the repair shop—one of the reasons we include two annual routine maintenance visits with all Fair cars. But if you drive your car long enough (which we think you should avoid), you’re bound to find yourself in need of professional automotive help. And unless you have a pretty solid understanding of what’s going on inside the den of mysteries that is your engine compartment, you could become the victim of a wide variety of rip-offs and overpriced, often unnecessary services.
We asked automotive experts about some of the most common repair-shop scams—and how to steer clear of them. Here’s what they said.
Too-Frequent Oil Changes
Back in your grandparents’ era, cars were dirty, oil-burning monsters. At that time, the mantra of changing your oil every 3,000 (or even 1,500 miles) was a good piece of advice to follow.
Nowadays, cars are more sophisticated, with computerized cooling systems and high-tech engines that simply don’t break down or pollute their lubricating oil like they used to. As a result, the old rules of the oil change game have gone out the window, said Laura Gonzales, marketing manager at Chicago-area Audi Westmont.
“A lot has changed since the 3,000-mile-oil-change advice became popular; cars are now built to run much more efficiently, meaning you don’t need to change the oil as frequently,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said many manufacturers now suggest changing your oil every 5,000 miles, but to always check your user manual to see what’s best for your vehicle.
“And don’t let a mechanic convince you otherwise,” she said.
If the inner workings of an engine are foreign to you, the dark heart of your car’s transmission is another thing altogether. For this reason, you might be quick to agree when a service person informs you they can cure the ills of this nebulous sprocket chamber with a quick flush.
But that would be a mistake, said Jill Trotta, Vice President of Marketing, Industry, and Sales at RepairPal.com, which screens and certifies repair shops.
“One service that can be oversold is a transmission flush—not a fluid exchange, but a flush using chemical agents to ‘clean’ the inside of the transmission,” she said. “If the fluid is dirty enough to require a cleaning, it could be better to just leave things alone, as replacing very dirty transmission fluid can result in shifting issues after the service is performed.”
Trotta said you can often stay ahead of transmission problems simply by changing the fluid as recommended—or sooner if needed.
Since you’re the one driving your car on a daily basis, you’re going to have a pretty good idea when something is seriously amiss. But if you’ve brought your painted metal baby into the shop and are suddenly presented with a laundry list of pricey maintenance items that seem entirely out of the blue, it might be time to ask around, said Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, an aftermarket automotive retailer.
“Your vehicle’s manual will include a detailed list of necessary maintenance as well as a preferred timeframe for when these repairs should be performed,” Reina said. “If your mechanic is suggesting a transmission fluid change at 30,000 miles when the manufacturer suggests every 100,000 miles, you should consider it a red flag to seek a second opinion.”
Unless your car has completely ceased operation, Reina said it’s a good idea to do a little research before agreeing to unplanned maintenance requests.
“Spark plugs and filters are categories where the vehicle manufacturer will suggest specific replacement intervals. If the shop wants to change things sooner, ask why,” he said.
The Pricing Bait-and-Switch
There’s nothing more frustrating than cruising back into the shop to pick up your ride, only to discover that the bill is two or three times more than what you’d expected.
Mike Jones, president and CEO of Autopom, an extended warranty provider, said that’s why it’s important to ask for a written estimate from a mechanic before they begin the job.
“Request an estimate from the shop with the price of parts and labor,” Jones suggested. “You can approve or reject any repair they recommend.”
Going It Alone
The vast web of computerized, mechanical and fluid-based needs of a car can be overwhelming—especially when you find yourself in the middle of a noisy shop with a ratchet gun-wielding guy in coveralls telling you to do what he says.
That’s why Reina suggests doing your homework before stepping foot in a repair shop—and even using the buddy system.
“If possible, bring a trusted friend or family member along with you, particularly if you are visiting a shop for the first time,” he said. “It always helps to have a second set of eyes and ears to identify any potentially suspicious offers or suggestions.”
Reina said a quick web search with the Better Business Bureau can let you know if you’re dealing with a stand-up shop—or a place that tends to make a business out of gouging less technically proficient car drivers.
“And ask plenty of questions. If something seems to be a red flag, it’s okay to ask for clarification from the mechanic—it’s his or her job to explain the services and their importance to you, in full,” Reina said. “If you aren’t satisfied with an explanation, it’s also okay to walk away and seek a second opinion.”
Jones agreed that “social proof” is totally valid when seeking out a mechanic.
“What are their Google and Yelp reviews like? Don’t settle for a mechanic with one or two reviews—you’ll want several dozen to form an opinion,” he said.
Jones also suggested looking for proper certifications, like those from the American Automobile Association or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Then there’s the old-fashioned test of simply watching for repair shops that appear crowded.
“If there are a lot of cars in the lot or a lot of people in the waiting area, you’ll have a good sense of the customer service they offer,” Jones said.