Ask these questions -- and take these measures - to cut the risk of a repair scam for your computer, home or car: Internet Scambusters #366
Getting broken stuff fixed is expensive enough these days without a repair scam artist charging you an even bigger fortune and maybe not even doing the job.
These crooks exploit our lack of knowledge about things like cars and computers or try to scare us about bogus problems in our homes.
But with a bit of planning and research you can cut the risk of being a victim of home repair scams, computer repair scams and auto repair scams.
This issue, we have a bumper crop of 20 tips to tell you how.
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Let's check out today's...
20 Smart Steps to Stop Repair Scam Artists from "Fixing" Your Wallet
Whether it's in your home, under the hood of your car or deep in the inner workings of your PC, repair scam risks are lurking in the darkest corners of our property.
And they're every bit as troublesome -- and much more costly -- than the gremlins that got them there in the first place.
A quick dip into the YouTube archive, for instance, turns up videos from recent, separate investigations by TV stations in three countries -- the US, Canada and Britain -- that show computer repair scam merchants at work.
In each case, a reporter, posing as a customer, presents PC repair shops with a computer that's been doctored so it doesn't work.
The faults are simple -- like a loose memory chip or unplugged cable -- but, in the vast majority of cases, the repairers either fail to spot the problem or simply claim the trouble is much more complex and will be costly to fix.
Some of these computer repair scam types (and they even included a couple of well-known electronics retail chains) even suggest the PCs are now useless and the owner should buy a new one -- from them of course.
Only about 20% both correctly diagnose the problem and charge "fairly" for them. But even that's a moot point since most computer repair shops have a minimum charge of $50 or $75 no matter what they do, and that's a costly way of re-plugging a cable.
Only two out of the dozens of repairers tested correct the problem for free.
And, of course, as regular Scambusters subscribers know, auto repair scams are at least as common, ranging from bogus engineers in parking lots who claim they see something wrong with your car, to crooked repair shops who'll pull the same kind of tricks as those computer "fix-its" we just mentioned.
For example, take a look at these articles:
Then there are the home repair scam merchants who try to con you by claiming you have problems with some part of your structure (often the driveway, roof or chimney). Here are some examples of what to avoid:
Or they'll tell you your home is infested with pests. Or they just happen to have materials left over from another job and can do a cheap makeover on some aspect of your home.
Or maybe they'll either try to lure you out of the house so an accomplice can steal your stuff, or just come in, ask to visit the bathroom, and clean you out.
Nearly all repair scams have one thing in common: they exploit your ignorance.
The villains can tell you anything they want and, unless you happen to have some real expertise of your own, how are you to know if they're telling the truth?
Sometimes, it can be a really tough call that may be just down to your gut feeling about whether to trust someone or not.
Top 20 Repair Scam Tricks
But there are quite a few things you can do to minimize the chances of being mugged by these repair scam artists. We've put together a list of 20 of them:
1. Never agree with a front-door or parking lot solicitor or a telesales caller for them to do work for you without checking them out.
Simply don't take their word for whatever they tell you -- and don't let them in your house or go outside with them. Generally, the most reliable repairers don't have to solicit for work.
2. You should always thoroughly check out anyone you're planning on to do your repairs. Are they licensed/bonded? Are they listed in the phone book? What does their job/repair vehicle look like -- professional or dirty and worn out? Is the engineer or tech certificated for the work? Have many complaints against them been lodged?
3. Unless you already have worked with them and absolutely trust their reputation for value, always get a second and, preferably, a third bid for comparison. This alone has saved us thousands of dollars. A 40% or 50% difference is not uncommon!
4. Check in advance if the contractor will charge for investigating the cause and producing an estimate. This can be expensive, so make sure you know up front what the fee will be. Although free estimates are wonderful, when it's someone you've called out to your home or time consuming to create the estimate, it may be fair for them to charge for their time. Also, find out if there's a minimum charge.
5. Bids should be in writing and include not only costs but how long the work will take. When comparing them, make sure they're like-for-like -- covering the same scope of work and quality of materials.
Car repair scam artists and some who fix home appliances are well known for substituting cheap, inferior parts that don't last.
6. Establish if the work is going to be covered by a warranty -- and get a written copy. Check out that fine print -- that's where home repair scams are often hidden, taking away your rights for redress.
7. And, on the subject of written stuff, keep copies of all correspondence, including emails and advertisements, in case there's a subsequent dispute.
8. It's not unreasonable to record phone conversations too -- but you should tell the person you're doing it, which has the dual benefit of common courtesy (or even the law in some places) and making the contractor aware you're on the ball.
9. Where an item has to be replaced, make it clear upfront that you'll be wanting to see and keep the broken part once the job is done.
10. Never agree to an open-ended repair deal where you have no idea what the final cost will be. Insist the repairer contacts you if it looks like the estimate will be exceeded.
This sort of "bait and switch" trick is common with repair scams, where crooks who come in with the lowest competitive bid later tell you it's going to cost much more.
11. Take steps to protect your valuables. That means concealing or locking away precious items before you let someone into your home or car, and removing or password protecting (or preferably encrypting) sensitive stuff on your PC.
That even includes family photos, a favorite target of some of the weirdos in computer repair shops. And you always back up your data onto an external drive don't you?
12. Speak to knowledgeable friends and do an online search for the problem you're experiencing, to get a clue on the possible cause.
Recently, Scambuster Keith was suspicious when a repair shop told him the whole a/c system on his low-mileage car was kaput and would cost $3,500 to replace. But a quick online search established this was a not-uncommon problem with his particular make and model and the quoted price was about average.
13. Ask the contractor for references. Of course, he's not going to give you the names of dissatisfied customers but it's going to put him on his guard.
Make sure you actually check the references -- don't just accept written ones -- and speak to the people involved, especially if it's likely to be a costly job.
14. Be wary if the repairer asks to be paid in cash. Perhaps it's OK if you want to pay this way but if the repairer asks, he's also making a statement about the way he runs his business. And always get a receipt that specifies the work that's been done.
15. Don't pay upfront. Some contractors may ask for a deposit, which is often OK. At the very least you should be able to hold at least half of the payment until the job is complete.
16. Inspect all repair work, check the item is performing as it should be and pay by credit card if possible, which allows you to take action to halt the payment if you subsequently encounter early problems.
17. Beware of sending items, like cell phones and iPods, away for repairs unless it's to the manufacturer or the retailer you bought it from. Online and classified ads offering cheap fixes could be a front for a repair scam. You'll likely never see the item again.
18. Beware of being bamboozled by jargon. Repair scammers and even legit engineers and geeks may use terms you don't understand, either innocently or to try to convince you they know what they're doing.
If you don't understand, ask. If it's a repair scam, the crook will either not be able to answer or won't look you in the eye when they try to explain.
19. Be skeptical of "limited time" special offers or other sales talk that aims to convince you that you're getting a bargain, but only if you give the go-ahead for work now.
It's easy for a repair scam artist to say the work would normally cost so-and-so but they can do it for less right now. Who says so?
20. And finally, if you have the slightest suspicion that you may have been scammed, try to get the work inspected by a third party as soon as possible. Not only may this help you get your money back but, if repair work hasn't been done properly, it could even save your life!
Goodness knows, these days getting just about anything fixed seems to cost an arm and a leg. You owe it to yourself -- and your wallet -- to try to ensure you're not being hoodwinked by a repair scam of someone who either doesn't know what he's doing or just sets out to rip you off.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.