Four ways your body shop could rip you off

Most mechanics are honest and perform good work for fair prices. If you end up taking your car to an unscrupulous repair shop, however, you could be out thousands of dollars -- or even drive off with an unsafe car. U.S. drivers lose billions of dollars each year because of faulty repairs, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. To protect yourself, it's important to know the types of scams you may encounter.

1. Inflated damage
In this scheme, repair shops try to get as much out of you or your auto insurance company as possible, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). They may perform unnecessary repairs and bill your auto insurance company for them. They may charge the insurer for repairs that were never actually performed. They may even cause damage intentionally to trick the insurance adjuster into thinking more repairs are needed. In some extreme cases, according to the NICB, a car may look "as though a hammer had been taken to it."
2. Purposeful underperformance
This scheme involves cutting corners. The body shop charges for work that never gets done and for parts that are never installed. Sometimes, according to the NICB, the body shop will paint parts so that they look new, use inferior or defective aftermarket parts, glue glass together or otherwise perform shoddy work intentionally to save costs on their end, while charging you (or your insurer) the full amount.
3. Air bag fraud
Air bag replacement is expensive. A shop might charge upwards of $3,000 to you (or an insurance company) to replace this vital safety device, according to the NICB. Air bag fraud occurs when mechanics use salvaged, stolen or -- believe it or not -- already deployed air bags that they bought on the black market for just $100 or $200. Naturally, they still charge you or your insurance company for a brand new air bag.
4. Padding the bill
You might get a fair-sounding estimate, but when you get the bill, the charges are astronomical. Sometimes, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a repair shop will fill in the dollar amount after you've signed the estimate.
How to fight back

A shoddy repair job can mean higher repair bills down the road -- or a heightened risk of accidents if your car isn't safe to drive. Moreover, if enough repair shops overcharge auto insurance companies, insurers will make up their losses in the form of higher premiums. To fight back, prevention is key. The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud provides the following tips:

  • Rely on a repair shop's reputation. Ask friends and family whether they know of any honest mechanics, and look for certification from organizations like the National Institute for Automotive Safety Excellence.
  • Inspect the shop. Does it look professional? Is it tidy? Is the staff willing to answer your questions?
  • Get a written estimate and require that the body shop get your permission before the repair bill passes a certain amount. Get that promise in writing, too.
  • Ask to see the repairs. If parts were replaced, ask to see the old ones.
  • Be sure to ask for an itemized receipt. It will help call attention to suspicious charges.

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