Auto Repairs: Shams and Scams - How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off: Intro

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Shams + Scams | Glossary

The first job I had out of high school was with a local gas station. I was anxious to put some of the skills I had learned in auto shop to use, and was therefore eager to please my employer when he gave me my first real mechanical assignment after three months as a “rag wrench.” Until that time, my job consisted of standing behind a working mechanic and assisting him like a nurse, swabbing his brow or cleaning his tools and parts. Now, I was finally going to apply the depth of my mechanical knowledge: to probe, diagnose, and fix a problem that had temporarily halted the operation of an automobile. Okay, so maybe that sounds a bit glorified, but at the time, that’s kind of how I felt.

At the big moment, my employer asked me if I was aware there was a truck belonging to a paint company parked in back of the garage. I admitted I had seen it.

“Well,” he told me, “pop the valve cover, tighten an exhaust valve, and then button it up.”

I panicked and reviewed “the depth of my mechanical knowledge,” because this didn’t sound like any standard repair procedure that I had ever heard of, but then, who was I to argue? So I was convinced I was being tested, to put a system under fail, and observe its hampered condition so I could spot it later on when it actually did occur. It was an easy task and only took me about 15 minutes to accomplish.

Four hours later, the driver of the truck arrived. After he was given a running demonstration of his obviously stricken vehicle, the customer laughed and signed the repair order. His employer was paying for the repairs so all the customer cared about was when he could pick it up. When the customer left I was told to loosen the exhaust valve (tappet nut and screw), and adjust it back to its original position. I should then “plug it” (install six new spark plugs), clean the valve cover and head, then paint the works. I was to mask the parts very carefully and make sure that I used blue Ford engine paint. Now I was really confused, but nevertheless, I set to work.

As I finished up the job (which took about two hours), I became dismally aware that something was not according to automotive Hoyle. My suspicions were confirmed the following day when I took a peek at the repair order estimate for the truck and was astonished to see that it was written out as a complete valve job, including machine shop fees and other parts. The total came to $225! Minus my labor ($6.00), a can of paint, and six 40-cent spark plugs, my employer had managed to make quite a profit. But I was devastated. I had always thought mechanics were above that sort of thing. I was soon to learn that it was not an isolated instance. During the next nine months I counted at least 40 repair orders similar to that first one.

Years later I was working as a line mechanic in the auto repair center of a very large, reputable department store chain. While per forming a standard drum brake job, I felt the heavy stare of the service manager over my shoulder. At that moment I was running a hone through the customer’s used wheel cylinder with the intention of rebuilding it, a simple task that we were to perform for free if possible.

“What are you doing Mr. Johnston?” he asked. When I informed him, he turned red.

“We don’t rebuild wheel cylinders,” he warned, “We sell them. I want to see a new set on this car!”

I was therefore instructed to install four new wheel cylinders (this was a four-wheel drum brake car) at an additional cost of $23 each. Then I was to call the customer and advise him of this fact and tell him that he would need new “combi-kits” (those are the springs and keepers that hold the brake shoes to the backing plate) using the appropriate “scare tactic.” By the time I was through, the advertised $49.99 brake job that caught the customer’s eye in the morning paper now totaled $160!

The sham here was that the original wheel cylinders only needed a very minor repair and that our brake service contract stipulated refurbishing wheel cylinders if at all possible, a clause in the fine print we were to apparently ignore. After all, what were the chances the customer would inspect the wheel cylinders himself?

A great deal of my twelve years as a professional mechanic was in many ways rewarding, but I was often dismayed, and still am, by the everyday occurrence of deliberate and unfair repairs and charges made by mechanics in the trade. Speed, greed and the lack of informed customers have allowed many in the repair industry to charge as they like, do as they please, because they know that today’s mobile society has you at their mercy. Besides, there is much at stake. There are an estimated 210 million cars registered in the U.S., and each year Americans spend nearly 120 billion dollars to maintain and repair them. And no doubt, the feeling you had as you drove away after contributing to that tidy sum was something less than satisfaction of money well spent.

So what are you to do? Run out and take an automotive repair course and fix it yourself? Not a bad idea. Or arrive at the garage with a policeman at your side and introduce him as Uncle Fred? Possibilities to be sure, but not very practical. What you can do is arm yourself with enough information to deal with your mechanic or service manager more effectively. With knowledge comes power, power that will make a mechanic or service manager think twice about pulling a scam.

This guide is a comprehensive guide designed to give you some of that information. I also suggest that you read over your owner’s manual and consult a Chilton, Bentley or Haynes manual. Not so you can do the repairs yourself, but to familiarize yourself with the location and function of the various parts of your car. After all, you’re driving a rather substantial investment, and are paying a lot of money to fix and maintain that investment, praying that it won’t die at least until you’ve finished paying it off. So I would think that you would want to know there’s more to your car or truck than just turning a key to make it go—especially if you can save some money.

I have worked for service stations, department stores, quick stops, tire and muffler shops, dealerships, distributors, and privately owned repair facilities, both foreign and domestic. The tactics used in each and every shop differ because policies differ, but the general consensus has always been to sell you as much as possible, with whatever means possible. Primarily, I will elaborate on the major components that are presently being oversold, why and to whom. I will discuss your attitude and posture to improve your ability to detect fraud and deception. Just exactly what does your car require every three, nine, twelve or twenty four thousand miles? What constitutes a “tune-up” nowadays? What does it mean when a mechanic is “camping out” on your car? What’s a “come-back,” and why are there so many these days? If a mechanic tells you that your drums didn’t “mic out,” will you believe him without having seen them? Why does one turn of a screw warrant $25 extra on your smog check, because it's called a “low speed adjustment?” What are the typical qualifications for an average mechanic and why do they charge as much as your psychologist? Are you as angry as I am?


Then you’ll want to read on, because if you have a driver’s license, a pink slip and a set of car keys, sooner or later you’re going to end up at a repair facility, whether you like it or not. You know it. I know it. And so does the mechanic.

Next: Repair Facilities: Choosing The Best One

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