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The www.FedPrimeRate.com Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How Safe is Your Car? Getting Bullied into Unnecessary Repairs by a National Auto Repair Chain

 Getting Bullied into Unnecessary Repairs by a National Auto Repair ChainUnscrupulous mechanics have been ripping off naive customers long enough that it's almost a cliché, something you take for granted when you're dealing with a national chain like Just Brakes, but small-time operators aren't the only mechanics who deserve an unsavory reputation. If my experience with the hustlers at Just Brakes is any indication, it may be that the last honest mechanics are the small, family-owned outfits and that corporations with slogans like, "At Just Brakes, We Really Do Care!" should offer their customers a complimentary bottle of water, considering what they expect you to swallow.

I went to Just Brakes because I saw an ad that offered new brakes for $89.99, and a friend said that was a pretty good deal. I know next to nothing about cars, and my brakes had been squeaking for a while, so, advertisement in hand, I took a drive down to the nearest Just Brakes shop to see how quickly they could take a look at my beaten-down Chevy. All but one of the shop's bays were empty, so the counter man took my keys and said to have a seat. While I was waiting, I marveled at just how many people Just Brakes paid to work the counter. At first, it looked like just the one, but two more neatly dressed men with “Sales Associate” tags showed up to loiter behind the counter. These weren't bored mechanics, and it set me wondering why the place employed as many people behind the counter as they did in their garage.

About ten minutes later, a grim-faced mechanic came to the office and asked if I was the one who brought in the Chevy. Together with the sales associate who took my information down when I first arrived, they ushered me into the garage to explain just how screwed up my car really was. The counter man took out a little clipboard and started jotting down every thing the mechanic said, while the mechanic focused on visual aids, like the sheet where he'd written down the measurements for my brake pads. He talked fast, and I lost track of the names of parts and systems right after calipers and rotors. The only thing I heard really clearly, before they started talking price, was when he showed me the range of numbers my brakes should have matched, the “safe” measurements, and I thought it was odd that what he wrote down for my brakes seemed to fall into the “safe” range, only he didn't say that my brakes were safe. He said everything from the brake pads all the way to the ruptured shocks would need to be replaced.

“How much are we looking at?” the sales associate asked, eyes on his clipboard.

“This much work, probably a thousand or more.”

It felt like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. I didn't have anywhere near that amount in my checking account. I probably could have bought another car for a thousand dollars. Instead of saying that, I told them I couldn't afford the repairs.

The sales associate nodded compassionately. “What do you think? Is there anything we can do for him? I mean, man's got to get his car fixed. We can't let him keep driving around in a car that's not safe. How much can we shave off that?”

I watched the mechanic's eyes and suddenly I understood exactly what was going on. This was a routine, rehearsed, performed, perfected. There were three people working the counter because it was a two-man job. First, the mechanic bombards you with a list of brake problems, ticking them off so quickly you don't have time to examine the evidence. Then his partner, the man with the clipboard, backs him up and asks for a number that's way too high. The mechanic obliges. Then they conveniently cut the price, so it looks like you're getting a bargain.

My bargain was still going to run more than $600, so I told him again I just couldn't afford it. I didn't tell him I thought I was being scammed and just wanted out. That's when the salesman with the clipboard got in my face, angry and aggressive, and asked me why I was wasting his time. “Why'd you come here and waste my time if you haven't got any money?” I said I had the money for the brake replacement they advertised, but not for almost a thousand dollars worth of work. He kept the pressure on. “You understand, this car is unsafe. If I let you out of here with this car, you're going to be driving around in an unsafe vehicle. I can't just give you new brakes if the rest of the car is unsafe. You feel me?” I explained again that I couldn't afford the repairs and he backed off. They had me wait out front and drove the car out to me a few minutes later, emphasizing again that the car was unsafe and that if I had a credit card or something I could use, someone who could loan me the money, it was in my best interests to get the repairs done because they couldn't be held responsible if I drove off in an unsafe car.

Hammering me over and over again with how unsafe the car was achieved the desired effect. I went straight to a local mechanic, Bob Clarke, who'd been doing my oil changes for years. I figured if the brake problems were real, my mechanic wouldn't try a two-man con job just to sell me on the repairs. Mr. Clarke looked the car over himself and came back a little while later with a funny look on his face. “What exactly's wrong with it, Chris?” I told him as much as I could remember from the laundry list of problems Just Brakes had described, and Mr. Clarke said there was nothing wrong with the brakes, the car, anything. He couldn't in good conscience charge me for anything except cleaning the brake pads, which wasn't even necessary, he said. One thing he did notice that troubled him, however, was that the radiator cap had gone missing. When I said how I'd been treated at Just Brakes and how angry the salesman had been when I didn't authorize the repairs, Mr. Clarke said he'd seen just this sort of thing before. An unscrupulous mechanic will do a minor bit of sabotage, like stealing a radiator cap, so that the car will seem fine for a while... and then, dramatically, go bad. He suggested before I go calling the dealer for a replacement, that I call Just Brakes. “Just see what they say when you mention that the cap is missing. Most people wouldn't have noticed a thing like that until the damage was already done.”

I did just what Bob Clarke suggested, and as luck would have it, it was my sales guy who answered the phone. I asked if he remembered me stopping in earlier in the day. He did. His tone was very neutral. I said that when I checked under my hood, my radiator cap seemed to be missing. Long pause. He said to come right back and they'd take care of it. As soon as he saw me pull up in front of the Just Brakes garage, he was already walking outside with a replacement radiator cap in hand, still mint in the plastic bag. He handed it to me, said nothing, and walked back inside.

Not only did these hustlers try to con me into hundreds of dollars in repairs that I didn't really need, they tried to set me up for engine problems by snatching my radiator cap. Maybe it was a simple mistake, and in their haste to get rid of me when I couldn't pay for their fake repairs, the mechanic forgot to put it back. That would have explained why they gave me a new one, no questions asked, but why give me a whole new radiator cap? What happened to my actual cap? And how many other people were rooked into paying for ridiculously expensive repairs because they were bullied into thinking their cars were unsafe?

I've read up on Just Brakes since then, and I am not the first person to be hustled by them, nor will I be the last. At least one former manager from the company has come forward and exposed the company's sleazy tactics and dozens of customers have reported them to the Better Business Bureau and online consumer sites like RipOffReport.com. If you see one of their ads, no matter how promising the bargain, steer clear or you may find yourself driving an “unsafe” vehicle, too.

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