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Use caution in auto repairs

Many older adults have grown up owning a succession of cars and trucks. When I started to drive in the late 1960s, the life expectancy of a vehicle was about five years. The auto industry has come a long way since then, with quality improvements that have extended average vehicle life to 12 years and hundreds of thousands of miles.

All of this dependability has come at a cost, which is clear every time you take in your vehicle for service. From bumper to bumper, every car is a collection of systems and subsystems that has grown in complexity, leaving owners at the mercy of mechanics for needed maintenance and repairs. Newer vehicles contain a maze of computers, pumps, hoses, valves and sensors under the hood, giving dishonest mechanics a chance to gouge older adults.

If your vehicle has a problem, here are a few tips before handing over your keys to the shop:

• Read your owner’s manual.

Every car will have a page with recommended maintenance intervals that spell out how often you should change your air filters, oil or antifreeze. If your car is a later model, it probably will have a cabin air filter.

These things are among the least important to the operation of a vehicle, but an easy way for dishonest shops to hit you with a needless replacement. Use your owner’s manual to know if something really needs serviced.

• Flee messy and disorganized shops.

A good repair shop will be neat, clean and organized. If mechanics are working in pools of oil, around piles of old rusty parts and tools lying on the floor, you need to look for another shop. Don’t expect a sloppy shop to do professional repair work.

• Get a written repair estimate before authorizing work.

Unethical shops will give you a verbal low-ball quote for repair. After agreeing to a simple repair, such as a headlamp replacement, you return to the shop to find they’ve replaced the battery and alternator, citing vague problems with your electrical system — and they present you with a bill for more than $1,000.

Sidestep this nightmare by getting a detailed written estimate before work starts.

• Watch out for windshield replacement scams.

Windshield scammers hang out at high-traffic locations, like car washes. A fake window specialist will say you have a damaged windshield they can replace. They may say if the damage can’t be covered by a dollar bill, they’ll get your insurance company to replace your windshield for free.

This usually ends, at best, with a low quality installation of a low quality windshield. These scams are based on billing your auto insurance carrier for a substandard windshield replacement (or several replacements), and a host of related inflated repairs (wipers, wiper holders, even wiper motors).

If you think you need a new windshield, call your insurance company. They will send you to a reputable business for repair.

• Trust shops that do repair work for your friends and neighbors.

Several years ago, I left a rough-running vehicle with an auto dealer claiming to have a staff of factory-trained mechanics. I picked up the car several days later after paying the bill to replace all spark plugs and coils.

A few days later, the car was running rough again. A visit to an independent mechanic revealed that only half of the spark plugs had been replaced. The dealer refused to make good on their failure to replace the old, bad plugs.

A neighbor recommended a small, one-man shop a few miles out of town. I took my vehicle there for service until the owner retired. Use a repair shop recommended by your friends, if you can.

• Beware of renegade tow trucks.

Things are already at a low point if your car needs a tow. Wait for the tow truck you called and don’t accept a tow from another truck who just happens to drive by. The tow driver can charge whatever he wants and may hold your car hostage, adding storage fees until you cough up the ransom.

Auto repair scammers get especially greedy when dealing with older adults who may know little about their vehicles. Don’t be bullied by a pushy mechanic who tries to scare you into a fast decision on a high priced repair.

If something doesn’t seem right about an auto repair shop, trust your instincts and look for a shop that treats you respectfully.

Spring time will be here soon. In the meantime, drive safely and be friendly to other folks using the roads.

If you have a question on a possible scam, talk to a family member or call your local police department. Seniors also can call their county Senior Services Unit for more information about scams. In Mahoning County, call Bob Schaeffer at 330-480-5078. In Trumbull County, call Don Hyde at 330-675-7096.

Dave Long of Poland, a Youngstown State University graduate, is a retired public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who later worked as an elder scam prevention outreach specialist before moving back to the Mahoning Valley.

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