Don't get taken for unneeded auto fixes

July 11, 2009 

Rarely do stories generate the kind of consumer response that The Bee received after the state attorney general's office sued a Modesto businessman and his 22 Midas Automotive Service franchises.

The civil lawsuit, which seeks $222 million in penalties, claims the shops owned by Maurice "Mike" Irving Glad used false advertising and fraudulent business practices to sell consumers unnecessary parts and services. The case stems from a four-year investigation and 30 undercover sting operations.

For his part, Glad says he was the victim of overzealous enforcement by the state Bureau of Automotive Repair that was designed to deceive his mechanics. He defended his business practices and workers, vowing to fight the lawsuit aggressively.

The day after a story about the case was published, The Bee received telephone calls and e-mails from people claiming they were victims of similar treatment at the Midas shops. One caller said he had paid more than $15,000 for brake and other services for his family's vehicles.

The case against Glad and his Midas shops will have to work its way through the legal process. No matter what the outcome, though, consumers are left to ponder what in the heck they have to do to ensure they get the repairs they need at a fair price.

This can be particularly troubling if you're not a car person.

Michael Bolten, enforcement supervisor for the Fresno office of the repair bureau, recommends boning up on your owner's manual and the manufacturer's recommended service schedule. That should give you a good overview of your vehicle, some knowledge of the terms likely to be thrown around at a shop and a better comfort level when it comes to getting repairs.

Even if you're not interested in improving your auto knowledge, Bolten said you still can protect yourself by always getting a written estimate of the work you want done.

Bolten said this is the critical part of the auto repair transaction. He said consumers must demand that the repairs be spelled out in specific language so the estimate reflects exactly what you want done. If you're unclear about something, make sure it gets explained and the estimate gets revised to reflect any changes.

Don't sign an open-ended estimate, Bolten warned. Without specifics, the shop has carte blanche to do work you may not need or want. Once you go down that road, it's hard to shift into reverse, assuming the transmission still works. That estimate is a legal contract authorizing a shop to take your money. Consumers should spend just as much time reading it and making sure they understand it as they would with any other contract they sign.

Bolten and Craig Powell, the owner of City Tire Sales Inc. at 1220 McHenry Ave. in Modesto, said people shouldn't hesitate to get a second opinion.

If the estimate is much higher than expected or a surprise list of additional repairs pops up, Powell said, take the car to a different shop for another estimate. Powell, whose family founded the business 50 years ago, said consumers really need to trust their instincts.

"If it seems out of the realm of what it should cost," he said, "then that's a red flag."

If you've gone to the same shop for years and always felt you were treated fairly, Powell said, then you don't need to worry as much, but you shouldn't hesitate to ask questions. It's all about creating a high level of trust. Shops that do this continually get referrals from satisfied customers and build good reputations.

When you do select a shop, don't let anyone there tell you that your vehicle can't be released unless the recommended work is done. Bolten said shops cannot threaten to hold on to your vehicle for any reason -- even safety concerns.

Bruce Little, owner of The Auto Shop at 129 E. Orangeburg Ave. in Modesto, said shops that threaten to keep people's cars and other unprofessional practices give the repair business a bad name.

Consumers are the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding what gets done and when, said Little, who's been in business for 33 years.

"We want people to come back year after year," he said, and the best way to do that is to go the extra mile to provide the best service possible.

"You can't please everybody, but you have to try," he said.

Little and Powell warned consumers against always going for the lowest price. "Sometimes you're just chasing the gimmick," Powell said. "People should look for the best deal they can get. But remember, nothing's free."

Be ready before you need repairs

The Bureau of Automotive Repair, an agency of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, offers the following recommendations to allow you to "Take Charge of Your Auto Repairs":

• Select a repair shop before you need one -- Ask family, friends and co-workers which repair shops they like. Try out a repair shop with a minor maintenance job, such as an oil change, first.

• Look for the license -- Choose a licensed shop. Check to see if there has been any disciplinary action taken against it. You can verify a license online at www.dca.ca.gov or call 800-952-5210.

• Shop appearance -- Look for neat, organized service floors, modern equipment and clearly posted policies on charges, guarantees and methods of payment.

• Personnel -- The staff should be courteous and helpful. A service manager should be willing to answer your questions and resolve disputes.

• Go by the book -- Your owner's manual is the best reference for car care and maintenance. Pay attention to your car's warning indicators; they can keep small problems from becoming bigger.

• Know your rights -- All auto repair shops in California must be registered with the Bureau of Automotive Repair, and every repair shop must post a BAR sign that informs customers of their rights.

For more information, call 800-952-5210 or go to www.autorepair.ca.gov.


Bee business editor David W. Hill can be reached at dhill@modbee.com or 578-2336.

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