CALL7 Investigation: Auto shop estimates miss problems, suggest unnecessary repairs

Auto shops miss problems, suggest unneeded repairs

DENVER - A hidden camera investigation by the CALL7 Investigators found recommendations for a single vehicle from 10 Denver metro area auto mechanics varied widely. Some suggested unnecessary repairs and others missed problems that needed to be fixed.

"If I was grading that, that would be an 'F,'" Rodney Perkins, a master mechanic, said as he thumbed through estimates that shops provided to undercover CALL7 Investigators.

"This one would be an 'F,'" he said of another.

Before we took our 2005 Jeep Liberty out for estimates, Perkins did a full inspection with the students he teaches at Emily Griffith Technical College’s auto repair program. Perkins and his students identified two repairs that need to be completed:  a leaking power steering hose and a leaking lower radiator hose. The latter, if not fixed, could leave the Jeep inoperable, Perkins said.

CALL7 Investigators visited the Meineke on 120th Avenue in Thornton. Mechanics there caught the problem with the Jeep's power steering hose, but missed the leaking radiator hose. The shop also added on parts and services that weren't necessary, like $150 to replace spark plugs. The total estimate: $596.

CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon interviewed the manager, who admitted the inspection could have been more thorough.

"Yeah, probably could have done a better inspection -- that would have been a good idea," the manager told Rabon.

The manager added that it is standard procedure for his mechanics to recommend the replacement of spark plugs based on mileage; not an actual inspection of the condition of the Jeep’s parts.

"We didn't pull any of the spark plugs out," the manager said. "I could if I was asked to."

Rabon asked: "Well, wouldn't you think that's an important thing to do before saying someone needs them?"

The manager replied that CALL7's undercover investigator "just wanted me to check the car out and what it needed. Um, I'm sorry. I don't like on-camera."

Rebecca Miller of Thornton, a customer of the shop, alleged that after new spark plugs were put in her car a mechanic told her they weren't actually needed. She spent $650 to get the car repaired, but said it died before she could even drive it out of the shop's parking lot. Mechanics went back to work on her car, but repairs were delayed for weeks because the shop could not locate the right part, Miller said.

"They told me they found a part and it was ready," she said. "Then they told me the next day it was sold on eBay three weeks ago."

Five weeks passed before Miller got her car back.

When Rabon asked the manager about Miller's car, he stopped the interview:  "I'd rather not continue this interview."

In the wake of CALL7 Investigators' questions, the Meineke shop issued a partial refund to Miller, including what she paid for the spark plugs. The shop also apologized for its mistakes.

The Just Brakes shop on 592 S. Broadway missed both major problems with the Jeep. Instead, the shop gave CALL7 Investigators an estimate suggesting brake work and rear shocks for $526. The manager at the shop told CALL7 Investigators by phone that he is new and therefore “can’t really respond” to the details of the estimate his shop provided us at the time. He added that his shop does its work “correctly” since he became manager.

At Green Garage in Denver's LoHi neighborhood, mechanics missed the problem with our Jeep's radiator hose, but caught the issue with the power steering hose. The estimate to fix that problem was substantially higher than any of the other estimates we received.

Green Garage's owner apologized for missing the radiator problem and defended his shop’s pricing, saying it is based on industry standards.

Other shops provided estimates that were off target, failing to identify needed repairs or recommending ones that our expert said were unnecessary.

It is illegal to suggest repairs that are not necessary under a little-known law called the Motor Vehicle Repair Act, according to Adams County District Attorney Dave Young. It's also illegal to charge for repairs without a customer's consent, as well as for mechanics to say that repairs have been completed when they really haven't.

"I have a feeling that there's a lot of people out there that don't even know it's a criminal act to do these things," Young said. "It's fraud. There's no other way to put it."

Young did not say any of the shops the CALL7 Investigators tested committed fraud.

Convictions under the law are rare.

In the past 10 years, there have only been 32 cases and nine convictions, the CALL7 Investigators’ analysis of cases across Colorado found. Punishments under the law vary from a petty offense to a misdemeanor depending on the specific charge. Fines of up to $1,000 are possible and in some cases,  jail is possible too.

Other laws, like theft or fraud, may apply in cases. For example, Ostell Shawn Miles, a former NFL running back who owns 24-Hour Automotive, was arrested and charged last Thursday with felony theft. The Denver District Attorney’s Office said he defrauded his customers, including charging them for repairs that weren’t done or held their cars without authorization.

Last year in Colorado Springs, police shut down a shop with a history of complaints -- Springs Transmission and Automotive. Investigators alleged the shop charged for repairs that were not done, performed unauthorized or unnecessary repairs and allowed employees to use customers’ vehicles.

Danny Katz, director of Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, said consumers are in a tough position with auto shops. They have to place their trust in mechanics because they don’t know enough to double check the work.

"That's why it is important to shop around and get a couple of quotes," Katz said.

Young added that if consumers believe they are being ripped off, they can contact local police.

INTERESTED IN DOUBLE CHECKING WHAT YOU ARE BEING QUOTED FOR AN AUTO REPAIR? TRY THESE ONLINE TOOLS:

www.driverside.com

www.automd.com

www.2carpros.com

www.myautorepairadvice.com

www.freeautomechanic.com

Read more about the Motor Vehicle Repair Act - http://media.thedenverchannel.com/documents/motor_vehicle_repair_act.pdf

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If you have a news tip, or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with her on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.