|NEWARK – You drop off your car for an oil change, and ask the mechanic to check out a strange noise from the engine, or misbehaving brakes. The mechanic calls later to say that, according to a full inspection, your vehicle has serious problems – and needs hundreds or even thousands of dollars in repairs.
Can you trust that the mechanic’s assessment is fully honest and accurate, and that the costly repairs really are necessary?
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs during the past several months sent undercover investigators into auto repair shops about which it had received consumer complaints, in order to determine whether the shops recommended and charged for unnecessary repairs, or committed other violations of New Jersey’s consumer protection laws and regulations.
“Car maintenance and car repair are among the biggest recurring expenses in a consumer’s everyday life, and most consumers lack the expertise to know whether their mechanic is cheating them by charging for repairs that are not really necessary,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said. “Our investigators went undercover to expose and penalize auto repair shops that violate the law.”
Of 11 shops visited by undercover investigators with “undercover cars,” two auto repair shops allegedly recommended, performed, and charged hundreds of dollars for repairs that were not necessary. In one case, after a female undercover investigator asked whether her car was safe to drive, a shop staff member told her he would not drive the car without making recommended repairs.
American Eagle Automotive, LLC, also known as Loman Auto Sales, of Woodbridge, has agreed to pay $12,000 to settle the State’s allegations that the company violated New Jersey’s consumer protection laws. An additional penalty of $8,000 will be suspended, and vacated after one year, if American Eagle abides by the terms of its settlement with the State. Moshe’s Auto Repair Corporation, of West Orange, has agreed to pay $7,025 to resolve the State’s allegations.
New Jersey is the most expensive state in the nation for auto repair, with an average total diagnostics-and-repair bill of $393, according to a June 2013 report by CarMD.com.
The State Division of Consumer Affairs last year received 1,210 consumer complaints about car sales and auto repair – more than any other consumer complaint category, including home improvements. Most auto repair complaints are from consumers who allege the repair shop performed unnecessary work, with a smaller number alleging a repair shop charged for work that was not performed.
“We conducted these undercover investigations in response to very real concerns raised by consumers about the honesty of some auto mechanics in New Jersey,” Eric T. Kanefsky, Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs, said. “Fortunately, the majority of companies acted with honesty and integrity. Those who did not will pay thousands in penalties.”
The undercover investigators from the Division of Consumer Affairs posed as consumers who wanted their vehicle’s oil changed and wanted mechanics to confirm whether their vehicles needed any other maintenance work or repairs.
The Division also retained an independent automobile inspection firm to check the State-owned, undercover vehicles before and after they were seen by mechanics. The inspections verified any specific repairs the vehicles may have needed, and verified whether the mechanics actually performed all of the work they charged for.
On two occasions at American Eagle Automotive, and on one occasion at Moshe’s Auto Repair, the repair shops performed legitimate repairs – but also allegedly told the undercover investigators that extra, unnecessary repairs were also needed.
Unnecessary repairs at American Eagle allegedly included the $1,078.10 replacement of outer tie rods and a rack and pinion seal, and a $181.12 spark plug replacement.
The unnecessary repair at Moshe’s allegedly consisted of a $250 catalytic converter replacement. When recommending the unnecessary repair, a Moshe’s representative allegedly told the undercover investigator that he would not drive her car in its current condition.
Both companies also allegedly failed to comply with State requirements that they conspicuously display a poster with certain consumer information; and that they provide consumers with signed copies of their invoices.
The undercover investigations also revealed lesser violations by two companies that did not perform unnecessary repairs, but allegedly failed to provide consumers with receipts or documents they signed, and failed to display the poster with consumer information. Those companies, AAM Motor Sales, LLC, of Jersey City, and Able Ford of New Jersey, Inc., of Old Bridge, each agreed to pay civil penalties of $2,000.
Investigators Michael Bruch, Barbara Ferris, and Aziza Salikhov, and Supervising Investigator Joseph Singh, in the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Consumer Protection, conducted this investigation. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Koziar, within the Division of Law, represented the State in this matter.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
Follow the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook, and check our online calendar of upcoming Consumer Outreach events.