Have you ever been scammed for a vehicle repair?

I’m hoping for confirmed scams but very suspect scams could generate interesting comments from the many professionals. I fear that dealership scams could overwhelm the forum but I would still be interested in a few.

Here goes . . .

I worked with a guy who charged for all sorts of high paying repairs, which he did not perform. All those head gasket repairs and suspension overhauls were on paper only. He put the parts in his cabinet, and then would throw them in the company trash can in the evening. The janitor saw the unused parts . . . still sealed in plastic . . . and handed them to the shop foreman. "Boss, look what I found. Why would somebody throw this stuff away?

I don’t think I’ve ever really been scammed. BSed, and lousy work but not actually scammed. The 7 week trans job comes close and I did accuse the guy of sales tax fraud by juggling parts versus labor. Later I found out the guy owed the State of Minnesota $500,000 in sales tax.

I think everybody who has owned a car for more than ten years at any period during the last century has been scammed or screwed at least once.

The worst one I remember was in the late '80s. My wife (I was married then) worked with a woman whose husband owned a shop. My ex took the RWD minivan to him for an inspection and he told her she needed a new driveshaft 'cause the old one was “bent”. Cost? $1,000. She called me and I told her to have him put the old one in the back of the van. I was willing to pay any price to prevent telling her he was scamming her… but my sensors did go off. Anyway, when I got home I checked the driveshaft and the only “bend” was a small ding in the dirt shield that enclosed the U-joint. That ding looked like it probably even came from a ball-peen hammer after the shaft was removed. The results of trying to get the money back from my wife’s friend’s husband would have been far worse than just swallowing and getting on with life, but I never forgot that one.

One of my wife’s other coworkers proved to be an untrustworthy contractor too, but that one wasn’t car related so I’ll skip it. And then there was the time she asked me to cosign a loan for a coworker to buy a new car… because her coworker’s credit was terrible and she couldn’t get a loan. That one I stood firm on and refused. I don’t recall how long it was that I received the poison-dart looks and the silent treatment.

I’ve been screwed directly too, but I’ve succeeded in forgetting those events.

I can’t say as I’ve ever been scammed myself but I’ve worked with a few guys whose fingers I would not want on any car of mine. Most of the ones I’ve worked with were honest and competent but the minority tarnishes the majority.

A couple of the bad percentage bunch were outright crooks; the rest seemed to believe that a quick wild guess or a lot of guesses at a problem rather than devoting a little time to be reasonably certain about a problem was the better option.

Let me start. 1991 Mazda RX7 GTU. I purchased the car in 2001 for $2,000. I had always wanted one since owning a trouble free first generation 1981. It had 90,000 on the odometer but ran and drove great with good body and interior. A couple of Months later I had a starting problem. No crank. I was able to contact an old buddy who had previously had a Mazda rotary specialty shop. He no longer had the shop as he had discovered that computer repair was more lucrative than auto repair. He told me it was a clutch safety switch and recommended removing the floor mat. He recommended a shop and I was able to drive the car there. Installing the switch was $70. That seemed fair. A couple of months later the idle started surging from 600 to 3,000 rpm. I took it to the same shop and they replaced the air mas flow meter $200. I have very limited knowledge what that is but it worked. I had confidence in this shop. Now let’s get to the scam. I drove to the grocery store and ended up with three bags full. I loaded them in the RX7 and it would crank but not start. I could not hear the fuel pump clicking. I was able to call my neighbor who rescued me and my groceries. He recommended the only auto repair shop in my small town. The next day was a Wednesday so I called in transportation challenged for work. The next day I walked about 2 miles to the recommended repair shop. The grumpy old man asked what kind of car? I replied 1991 Mazda RX7. He responded with “I don’t do rotarys”! I responded you don’t have to do a rotary it is a fuel pump replacement. He responded I DON’T DO ROTARYS!!!. OK… I walked a few more blocks to the salvage yard that had a towing service. They gave me a ride for the 4 remaining blocks to my car and flat beaded it almost 20 miles to the shop I had used for the 2 previous repairs. I’m not sure why I kept full coverage insurance on a $2,000 car but it came in handy. Towing and rental car were covered. I displayed my ignorance after telling the shop that it was a bad fuel pump and apologizing that the fuel tank they had to remove was half full. They told me they would have to order the pump and it would take about 3 days. The next day (Friday) they called me at work and said miraculously the local Mazda dealer had the pump in stock and the job was finished. I left work early, turned in the rental car and picked up the Mazda which started and ran fine. $200+ parts and 4.5 hours labor. 2 hours labor for R&R fuel tank. Total $669. I paid with my VISA and drove the car home with no problems. The next morning it failed to start with the same symptoms! I had had enough of this nonsense and bought a new Mitsubishi Eclipse. When I returned home with the Mitsubishi the Haynes manual I had ordered for the Mazda was on my doorstep. I was quite surprised. The fuel pump was accessible from the top of the fuel tank! I pulled the mat up and discovered the rusty screws securing the pump had never been touched. There was even one that had been stripped during original assembly! I looked underneath and the fuel tank straps and fittings had not been disturbed! The only thing with original grime disturbed was the electrical connector to the fuel pump. When I challenged the shop they swore up and down that they had performed everything! Total B.S.! I had my next door neighbor look at it. He is a skilled automotive mechanic but like me is challenged by EFI and computers. He is an expert at rebuilding and tuning Rochester mechanical fuel injection. Try to find another one of those! He is also certified as an aviation accident investigator. He agreed that the only thing touched was the electrical connector. It seemed a bit loose so I used a small “zip tie” to keep it tight. The car started and ran fine for a couple more years! I took photos of everything. I got a notarized sworn statement from my neighbor and even went the extra mile and visited the Mazda dealer. Of course independent shops are their competition and were more than happy to give me a printout that the last purchase from this shop was 3 Months past for a suspension component. Also a printout that flat rate for fuel pump replacement for my Mazda was .8 hours. I presented these documents and my photos to the State Attorney General office when I filed my complaint. The female I dealt with stated “I have no clue concerning auto mechanics but your evidence leaves no doubt that none of this work was done”. Unfortunately there were no other complaints filed against this shop so nothing could be done. I think the shop is for the most part honest but could not resist an easy mark which in my opinion makes them dishonest. Fortunately when I challenged the charge on my VISA an official letter from the State Attorney General office wiped out all charges.

I always work on my own vehicles so the opportunity to be scammed is cut to a minimum. I did have one mechanic who tried to scam me in the high mountains of Colorado one time though. I had a horrible screeching sound coming from the engine bay just after returning from a camping trip near Estes Park. The guy put it on his lift and said that the oil pan would have to come off for a closer inspection. While his back was to me…I noticed part of a tree limb caught behind my drive pulleys. I declined the maintenance and paid him for the lift time. I pulled over a couple of miles from the shop and pried out the limb. No more screeching sound.

That reminded me, not to veer off topic, but I had taken a load of tree limbs to the compost site. That night I took the car out and sounded like I had brake or bearing noise-a continual scraping sound and I had to use the car the next morning. I looked under it and found part of a bush under the car that I must have picked up at the compost site.

As far as being scammed, lets talk about not being scammed too. In 1968 I was driving my VW on my 200 mile trip to school. About half way and just outside of a town, the clutch pedal didn’t come up all the way and the clutch started to slip. I went to the first gas station and the guy put it up on the lift. He freed the cable that had stuck and all was well. The total charge to this 19 year old kid 100 miles from home was one dollar. I paid him cash. There were no credit cards then and didn’t want to write him a check.

Bing In 1968 when service stations still performed minor mechanical repairs it was still fairly common practice. If a repair or adjustment could be completed in a few minutes with no parts used the charge was often $0 or $1. Nothing like that now days.

I have done most of my auto repair needs myself, so I’d have less of a chance of being scammed probably. Still, I have used shops in the past for certain things, like for an automatic transmission rebuild, brake work, no-start problems, etc, I don’t think I’ve ever been scammed. On one occasion the techs didn’t entirely understand how to diagnose and fix the problem and maybe didn’t think “I don’t know yet, we’re still working on it” was the proper response to a customer, so they made up an explanation out of whole cloth instead. But I don’t think their intent was to scam me, just make me go away.

Repair outfits may vary with their requirements. Dealerships promote earlier service to maximize profit under the guise of safer operation, which by the way, many customers prefer. So, being scammed depends on your point of view sometimes. Someone’s acceptable rattle my be intolerable to someone else and an effort by an independent to save a customer money can some times go unappreciated by a customer who wants it fixed “as good as new”.

Dag, 95% of what we’re referring to as scams are work that was never needed, charging for work that was never done, and enacting very expensive repairs for things that should have been cheap repairs… like changing an oil pan for a stripped drain hole, or charging for an alignment that was never done (fortunately, I had left small rocks under the front and rear of my tire, so I knew the car had never been moved… and I walked out and checked before I paid the bill. They 'fessed up when I caught them.). Or even squirting oil on shocks and telling the customer they were leaking (20/20 caught some shops doing that with hidden cameras some years ago). And then there’s the current thread from someone who was sold an unsafe junker… complete with an inspection sticker.

Occasionally someone thinks they’re getting scammed when they’re not. But far more often, their gut is right. And for every scam that gets caught, there are likely countless times the scam has been pulled and was not caught.

I truly believe the industry is populated by mostly good, honest mechanics doing their best… some being forced by an employer to “sell” things they’d rather not “sell”. But, unfortunately, there are also a lot of crooks out there. Every industry that is largely comprised of independent contractors or shops that serves the public at large is prone to this problem. Proportionally, there are probably more crooked independent “home contractors” than independent auto repair shops. And I’ve been down that road too.

I understand that obvious scamming goes on. I was just referring to differences in maintenance by dealerships who may perform “severe” maintenance level service when none is required. I would suggest too that even some who do their own maintenance over do it as well. There are some guys out their who follow 2500 mile oil change intervals to this day. There is a big difference between the individual mechanic and the business practices engaged by the service provider in general. I doubt anyone who says they have never been scammed…actually knows that for a fact. Unless you are doing your own service, no one knows for sure.

Scamming can even take place when no exchange of money is involved.
Back in 1960, my uncle bought a beautiful new Chrysler New Yorker Convertible–white with red leather interior.

I don’t recall exactly what problems he had with this car, but he brought it back–again and again–to the Chrysler dealer during the first few months of ownership. After several failed attempts at resolving the issue, he thought it was just a bit odd that each time he went to pick up his car, it always seemed to be parked in the exact same place where he had left it earlier in the day.

So, he decided to play a little trick on the dealership, by placing a piece of paper–with his name on it–underneath one of the tires. Sure enough, when he went back to pick up his supposedly-fixed car, the paper was sitting in the exact same place, under the same tire, as it had earlier.

When he confronted the service manager with this evidence, they suddenly became more motivated to fix the car, and fix it they did. He never returned to that sleazy dealership, and he told anyone who would listen that this particular dealership offered “curb service”. When people would look confused, he would explain that they had a habit of keeping cars parked at the curb, rather than actually working on them.

VDC, I too would include that in the definition of "scamming.

And Dag, you made a good point; I’m sure there are countless people out there who have been scammed and don’t even know it. I’m sure I’m in that group too. The paradox is that you don’t know you’ve been scammed unless you catch the scam.