The Consumer

Avoid being ripped off by car mechanics

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The rainy season and floods mean many motor vehicles will need repairs.

This causes anxiety for people who do not just worry about the cost, but also fear they will be scammed by unscrupulous mechanics and/or repair shops.

According to Jason Alderman, who writes the weekly column Practical Money Matters and directs the financial education program Practical Money Skills for Life, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau say auto repair fraud consistently ranks among top consumer complaints.

Filipino car owners may find helpful Alderman’s advice to American consumers.

The financial expert warns that “some unscrupulous operators will rip off inexperienced car owners by performing unnecessary or unauthorized repairs, substituting counterfeit or used replacement parts, or even doing such shoddy work that lives are endangered.”

To avoid some common scams, Alderman gives these pieces of advice:

  • Try to have a trusted repair shop lined up before you need one. Ask friends or your auto insurance company for recommendations. (Find out from relevant government agencies, probably the Department of Trade of Industry’s Bureau of Trade Regulation and Consumer Protection, whether they have received complaints against prospective mechanics.) If your car’s warranty is still in force, use authorized dealerships.

  • If major work is needed, gather several estimates. Once you have chosen a shop, ask for a detailed estimate (with no sections left blank) before you authorize repairs. Stress that they need your permission before making additional repairs. Make sure the work order clearly specifies: repairs to be done; all fees, including parts, labor, storage, loaner car; whether new, reconditioned or used parts will be used; acceptable payment methods, completion date and diagnostic/reassembly charges if you decide to get a second opinion or have the work done elsewhere.

  • Make sure the final repair bill itemizes all work completed and parts used. (Ask to see the work done and replaced parts.) Have them indicate on the bill any guaranteed items (including exclusions), in case problems occur later.

Common scams

Alderman suggests watching out for these scams:

  • They give a verbal estimate and then charge a higher price. Always get the estimate in writing.

  • A shop offers low-cost specials (oil change, brake inspection), then pads the work order with unneeded/unwanted repairs. If in doubt, have the initial work done and get a second opinion on the rest, unless there is an immediate safety issue.

  • They charge for services covered by the warranty. Always read the warranty carefully.

Alderman says dishonest mechanics can inflict intentional damage during an inspection to boost needed repairs. If they do not want to return replaced parts, this could mean the work was not actually done or they used inferior parts.

The financial expert says not to go “against your car manufacturer’s recommendations” on the suggestion of a mechanic. “If your manual recommends getting an oil change every 10,000 miles but the mechanic says every 3,000, make sure there is a good reason,” he says.

He adds that “high-pressure sales tactics” should be resisted.

Alderman reassures car owners that they can protect themselves against auto repair scams even if they do not completely understand how their vehicle works. They just have to be more informed and more careful. They should not allow themselves to be pressured into something they are not comfortable with.

Filipinos can also learn more from the FTC’s comprehensive Auto Repair Basics site, www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0211-auto-repair-basics.

Send letters to The Consumer, Lifestyle Section, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 1098 Chino Roces Ave. cor. Mascardo and Yague Sts., 1204 Makati City; fax 8974793/94; or e-mail lbolido@inquirer.com.ph.

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