Paying inflated prices for simple auto repair jobs. Using cheap parts for repairs. Selling useless extended warranties. Charging higher-than-necessary interest rates for loans.
These are a few of the ways auto-related scams are victimizing consumers, according to a new report by Tampa-based insurance price comparison website Clearsurance.
The report, based on an analysis of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission in 2020, found that Nevada was the worst state for auto-related fraud in 2020, with 346 complaints per 1 million residents, followed by Delaware (338) and Florida (337).
Massachusetts reported the lowest number of complaints — 15 per 1 million residents, followed by Kansas (73) and Rhode Island (76).
The two most likely ways consumers get scammed are at repair shops and dealerships, the report found. While a majority of these types of businesses are honest, services provided by them tend to involve complexities that provide plenty of opportunities to entrap consumers who might be confused or uninformed.
“Unless you are a savvy mechanic or lease expert, it is easy for scammers to slip in confusing technology to add on fraudulent charges,” the report says.
Complaints that Clearsurance used for its analysis include what it calls “soft fraud” cases, including deliberate scams and deceptive business practices.
The FTC defined auto-related cases as: “Misleading or deceptive claims regarding auto prices, financing, leasing or warranties; repair/maintenance issues with newly purchased used or new cars, including dissatisfaction with service provided by auto mechanics; price fixing and price gouging concerns against gas stations and oil companies; etc.”
Common ways that auto repair shops scam their customers include making unnecessary repairs, inflating prices for simple repair jobs, using cheaper counterfeit parts, charging for unused repair parts and faking malfunctions, such as “finding” oil leaks.
Dishonest dealerships, the report found, will hide unnecessary products or services in their leases, lie about a customer’s credit score to justify charging more, charge extremely high interest on loans, sell useless extended warranties, and charge for vehicle prep work that the manufacturer already did, such as vacuuming and washing the car and removing protective plastic.
How to avoid getting ripped off
Protecting oneself from overcharges or outright ripoffs unfortunately takes work by the consumer. Here are a few tips to avoid being victimized:
— Before buying a used car, it’s critical that consumers check the vehicle’s history through a service like Carfax.com, which can reveal service and crash histories and whether the odometer has been rolled back, and VinCheck.com, a free service from the National Insurance Crime Bureau that can reveal whether the car has been reported as stolen or titled as a salvage vehicle.
— Never hand over money for a car you haven’t seen or driven. When in the car, look at the odometer and see if the mileage corresponds with the wear and tear you see. If the odometer reading is low, you should expect little wear and tear. Also, look for dirt, mud or rust under carpet or seats, as they could indicate that the car was in a flood.
— At dealerships, always demand that price quotes or any other promise be put in writing. “Oral promises or guarantees are unenforceable and may as well have never happened,” said Joshua Feygin, a Hollywood, Fla.-based attorney who specializes in claims against auto dealers. Also, consumers should never leave a dealership without having a clear countersigned copy of the financing agreement or lease agreement they entered into with the dealer. “Dealers are obligated to provide consumers with a copy of every document that has their signature.”
— Check out customers’ comments about repair shops on social media sites and the Better Business Bureau’s website. “If an auto shop or dealership has any history of hiking up prices or fraudulent dealings, doing a bit of research beforehand will usually reveal this,” the report said.
— Always request a written estimate for repair work and make sure to check the “I request a written estimate box” so you will get a second written estimate and have to approve it if the final repair bill is going to be at least $100 more than originally estimated, Feygin said.
— Ask the mechanic to let you see any replaced parts. “Some mechanics will tell consumers they can’t show them the parts because they have to return them for core deposits,” Feygin said. A core is a part that can be rebuilt or recycled for future sale. Mechanics (and consumers) can typically get a discount off the replacement part by sending back the core. “While it’s true mechanics get money back for core exchanges (mostly for reusable parts like calipers and alternators), they usually have a reasonable period of time to return the part.”