Avoiding mechanical rip-offs
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

Cows walk willingly up the ramp to get that knock on the head -- but you shouldn't follow their example when it comes to getting your car fixed. And it's not necessary to know a lot about cars to avoid getting that great GM feeling; you just have to know a few basic precautions:

* Be sure the shop is competent -- While outright fraud and rip-offs are still very real dangers, an equally real and equally dangerous one is simple ineptitude. Modern computer-controlled vehicles are incredibly complex pieces of equipment; if the guy under the hood lack the skills and tools to properly diagnose and fix whatever the problem is, he'll just hunt and peck -- pulling parts (at your expense) and "fixing" things that probably don't need to be fixed. Meanwhile, your original problem's still a problem, even though you've been back to the shop two or three times now already. Look for ASE-certified (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) technicians. Avoid shops that look unprofessional and downtrodden -- and check with your local consumer affairs department for any history of complaints lodged against a shop you're considering doing business with.

* Get a second opinion -- As with buying a car, rush decisions when it comes to authorizing repairs can come back to haunt you. Especially if your car has developed a sudden problem and you feel panicky about getting it fixed right this minute. It is always a good idea to get a second opinion (and an additional estimate), in particular for major work that may or may not be necessary. The value of getting a second opinion is two-fold: One, if the second shop confirms the opinion of the first shop as far as the problem is concerned, you can be reasonably confident that this is, in fact, what's actually wrong with the car. Two, if you get a second estimate your feel for what constitutes a fair price for the work will be much better. If the second shop's quote is much higher, you can go back to the first one (or ask the second shop why their estimate is so much higher). And if the two estimates are about the same, you can feel secure you're not being taken for a ride.

* Trust (but verify) -- The Gipper's formulation is just as applicable to car work as it is to missile treaties. So if you're taking your car in to get the tires rotated, it's a smart move to discretely mark one of the tires with some white chalk in a place no one would notice unless they knew where to look. Then, when you pick your car up, you can check to see whether the shop actually did rotate your tires. Similarly, pull the dipstick after an oil change to make sure you got what you paid for (fresh oil) and, if you can, mark the oil filter just as you would the tires -- so that you can be certain a new one was actually installed. (Some have recommended asking to see the parts that have been replaced as evidence the work was actually done -- but this can be easily gotten around by the simple expedient of picking up a grimy old part off the shop floor and presenting it to you as "your" old part. The only way to be sure is to mark the part yourself -- before it's removed -- then check to see whether the part you're shown has that mark on it.)

* Pre-shop repair shops -- For the same reason it's good to know the doctor who's about to cut into your chest, it's a smart move to look for a shop before you need one. There are excellent dealers and excellent independent shops -- but there are also terrible dealers and equally bad independents. Don't assume that just because it's "the dealer" that it must be good -- or that an independent shop isn't as good as a dealer because it doesn't have a Toyota or Ford sign on the door. Ask your friends and family about their experiences with local shops -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Most folks are more than willing to share their experiences (either way). Do some drive-bys of the shops you're thinking about doing business with -- and be wary of places where you see the same cars sitting for weeks (or months) on end. This could indicate a glacially slow work pace -- or (worse) unhappy customers who've had to keep bringing their vehicle back for "service." Stroll inside the office/waiting area of shops you're looking over -- and note whether the employees are friendly (or hostile and sullen) and the cleanliness of the work areas (places that look like run-down Soviet-era machine shops may not be the best place to take your car).

* Lastly, don't passively accept being taken -- Your final bill should always be within a few dollars of the estimate; never tolerate a final repair bill that's significantly higher than what you were quoted (unless you agreed to something after the estimate was written). It's neither ethical nor (usually) legal for a shop to charge you for additional work you didn't specifically authorize. If this happens to you, move up the food chain and complain. If it's a dealer, speak with the service manager (and if that doesn't work, the owner of the store -- and from there, complain directly to the affiliated automaker, such as Ford, etc.) If it's an independent shop, try the owner. If you don't reach an acceptable understanding, head straight for your local town/city's government offices and lodge a complaint with the consumer protection department. The shop may have your car -- but you have the money -- as well as the title to the car, so it can't easily be converted into cash and is just taking up space on the shop's floorspace. The longer everything drags out, the more it costs the shop. Usually, once they understand you won't take being taken advantage of without visiting a serious hassle on them in return, they'll come to the table and resolve the issue satisfactorily. It also should go without saying that the car should be fixed. Be sure the problem you brought the thing in for is actually no longer a problem -- before you pay for the work. Ask to take a quick test drive, if need be. Remember -- so long as you've still got your money, you're still holding all the cards!