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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight: Car Service Tips

In a Fix

Many Auto Repair Jobs Are Fraudulent. Here Are Ways to Protect Yourself

May 15, 2000|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why would you put a car in the shop for repair if you know there's nothing wrong with it?

To find out if the repair shop will try to sell you on a problem that doesn't exist.

The state Bureau of Automotive Repair keeps a fleet of about 400 cars operating in an ongoing undercover operation to crack down on fraudulent repair shops.

And there's plenty of business.

The statistics might seem staggering: On auto body repair, the state bureau's undercover surveys have determined that 39% of those shops commit some type of fraud in servicing your vehicle.

The percentages are more difficult to come by for mechanical work. Even so, the Bureau of Automotive Repair resolved nearly 22,000 complaints last year. The latest financial figures available, for the previous fiscal year, show repair shops paid back to consumers $4,989,246 after complaints about fraud or shoddy work.

"If a shop charges you for work you don't need, we call that oversell," said Richard Mundy, the bureau's deputy director. "If a shop charges you for a part it didn't replace, we call that theft. Those are the two biggest complaints we get."

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Mundy estimates that about 10% of the auto repair operators in California are committing fraud. That means the vast majority are operating honestly. But to consumers, the fraud numbers are likely to still seem high, especially in body shop work.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Daly City) has a bill pending that would require the Bureau of Automotive Repair to go after some rip-off shops in special pilot programs.

Auto shop operators know it's an industry problem.

"Some places, you can just feel the hustle," said Anaheim auto repair shop owner Ira Newman.

Newman has been active in the California Auto Service Council, which represents most of the state's repair shops. For the industry itself to weed out its bad apples is not easy, he said, because shop operators like himself are too busy trying to run a business.

Brad Walker, executive director of the Auto Service Council, argues that some of what we might see as fraud is actually something else: incompetence.

"We have a problem with what we call 'parts hangers'--they drag down the whole industry," Walker said. "These are repair shops that can't figure out what's wrong with your car, so they just keep throwing new parts on until it gets fixed." Which means you're paying for lots of parts you don't really need. And your bill skyrockets in the process.

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The Southern California Better Business Bureau, based in Orange County, has seen some auto repair situations in which the bill was four times as high as it should be, said its executive director, Debbie Mahdi.

"But most consumers are in a Catch-22," she said. "They need their car fixed; they don't know what's wrong. So they just go ahead and pay."

State experts call it "fit and finish." If the car is ready, and it looks good, you drive home thinking you've gotten your money's worth. It's not until later you discover you've still got problems under the hood or elsewhere.

In the auto body business, said Mundy of the state monitoring group, many times consumers aren't aware the work wasn't done until they're ready to trade in, or turn in, a leased car. If a body shop says it replaced a piece, he explained, sometimes the dealership will then look at the body through the trunk and learn that actually the shop just ironed out dents with a type of putty.

How do you protect yourself?

For one thing, don't hesitate to file a complaint if you think you've been ripped off. (See the state hotline number to call in the accompanying graphic.)

Here are a few consumer tips, offered by the Bureau of Automotive Repair, the Southern California Auto Club and the Better Business Bureau:

* Try out a shop on a minor repair first, to see if you're satisfied.

* Call the Better Business Bureau or the Bureau of Automotive Repair to see if any complaints have been filed against an auto shop, or actions taken against it.

* If a shop says it replaced a part, ask to see it.

* Always get a written estimate of the work ahead of time. Don't pay for something you did not approve.

* Check your owner's manual first, to see what should be done for general maintenance of your vehicle.

* Steer clear of junk parts.

* If your dispute is with the mechanic, don't hesitate to ask to see the service manager.

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Here's a strong tip from Mahdi of the Better Business Bureau:

"A lot of shops guarantee their work for 30 days. But when it gets close to that time and you need to bring the car back, some of them will try to say they can't schedule you until next week, until just after the warranty has expired. Be sure you take it back within the 30 days."

Is the best price the best shop? A firm "no," advises shop owner Newman.

"If you base your decision on price-hopping, you're in trouble," he said. "If I can sell you a service for $69 and you can you can get the same service down the street for $29, you better believe that before you walk out of there, you'll be paying $129."

Mundy of the Bureau of Automotive Repair says the best approach when you walk into the shop is to have an air about you that you know what's going on.

"If you act ignorant . . . you're setting yourself up to be taken," he said.

Mundy won't give away all his department's trade secrets on the ways it uses to detect crooked operators with its undercover operations. But in some cases, he said, it will set the screws on a part at a certain angle. Then if an operator says a part was inspected, the bureau can tell if he's lying.

Despite its best efforts, the bureau isn't likely to eliminate all the cheats.

Says Kathleen Hamilton, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs: "We have people that want to make a quick buck and they don't have the best interest of the consumer in mind."

Newman agrees. "Some people are just cheats."

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