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Car Repair Scams & Survival Guide

I bought my first car when I was twenty-two years old. I had just graduated from university, had my first “real” job and was excited about taking this next step. I got a sporty little Chevy Sonic and was absolutely thrilled with how fun it was to drive and the unique styling of the car. After I’d driven it for six months, I took it in for its first oil change.

Perhaps I don’t look like the kind of person who would know very much about cars, because the mechanics spent almost the entire time I was in their shop trying to sell me on services there is no way a brand new car would need—and if it did, I would never pay for them to be done at their shop when I could take the vehicle in to the dealership and have them done for free under the vehicle’s warranty.

There are, unfortunately, lots of unethical mechanics out there looking for people they can take advantage of. If you are taking your car in for a repair, here are some of the most common scams to watch out for and how to survive them:

  1. They create the problem – You pull into a mechanic, expecting a routine inspection, only to be told that your fan belt is damaged and that you need new ones. They even have the belt on hand to show you the problem. You definitely can’t drive away with your fan belt looking like that, but that rip in your belt looks a little too clean, doesn’t it? These scammers will slit your tires, cut your hoses and belts, drip oil onto your engine to make it smoke, and more—they’ll create a problem that you have to pay them to fix.
  1. Upping their estimate – Never leave your car with a mechanic that won’t give you a written estimate. Giving you a verbal estimate doesn’t constitute a contract, and that means they can charge you whatever they want when you come back to pick up your car. Never sign a repair authorization until they have written in the estimate. Never agree to let the mechanic fix whatever problems they find without first consulting with you and giving you a written estimate for the work.
  1. Charging you for parts – If a mechanic says that your car needs a new part, make them show you the old part and explain in layman’s terms what is actually wrong with it. Why? Because often, mechanics will claim that they need to order and install new parts in your car, while in reality, the old part is perfectly fine and they have no intention of actually ordering that part. Instead, they just bill you for the new part and leave the old part in your vehicle. Some really unscrupulous shops will even do this when you do need that part to be replaced—they’ll leave the old one in, charge you for a new one, and then charge you for another new one when you have to come back for “another” repair!
  1. Inventing issues – This scam is so common it’s almost funny (almost). You take your car to the mechanic for a simple repair, and they discover that you actually need other, much more expensive and time-consuming repairs. You might even come in for routine maintenance and are then told that you have to get thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs when you were planning on spending maybe a hundred. If your car is driving fine and does not have any warning lights, and yet the mechanic tells you there are serious repairs that need to be done, it’s time for a second opinion.
  1. Installing used parts – Sometimes, to save money, mechanics will order used parts for your vehicle, but will actually charge you for the new, full-priced parts. Your car may actually need that replacement, which makes installing a used part very unethical. Because used parts are guaranteed to wear out faster than brand new parts, you will have to return for yet another part, which the mechanic will probably buy used again.

What can you do to avoid these scams?

First of all, look for a shop that is clean, organized, and run by mechanics that are genuinely interested in making sure that you are happy with the service you receive.

Ask for everything in writing: estimates, guarantees that they are using new parts, that the issues they say exist actually exist, etc. If they offer some sort of guarantee about their repairs, get that guarantee in writing, too.

Don’t authorize any repairs that you aren’t absolutely sure your vehicle needs.

Before choosing a shop for your car, make sure to check online reviews on the shop as well. Doing so could save you a lot of time, headaches and money.