AKRON-``Auto repair fraud-America's shame.'' Powerful words, especially coming from one of the nation's most reputable ``protectors'' of the motoring public, the American Automobile Association (AAA).
In a stern editorial in the fall edition of the Akron Automobile Club's quarterly newsletter, AAA Today, Akron AAA President Richard J. Duffy took a swipe at the automotive repair industry for what he called ``shoddy work and even fraud'' that ``have created a climate of mistrust and suspicion'' among consumers.
``It's the nation's shame,'' he writes, ``that consumers can't get their cars fixed without getting ripped off.''
Making matters worse, he pointed out, less than half the states have specific laws on the books to protect consumers against auto repair fraud.
Rooted in the plethora of recent stories about alleged rip-offs by major retail service chains, the editorial urges states to adopt laws-and criminal penalties-to protect the public from disreputable repair shops.
The editorial also calls for shops to prominently display ``customer rights,'' to provide written estimates of repair costs, and return to customers, when possible, any parts replaced on their vehicles.
And it encourages motorists to find a reputable repair shop and patronize it.
In an interview with TIRE BUSINESS, Mr. Duffy noted that service fraud is and always has been a ``timely issue,'' as far as the AAA is concerned. And, as winter fast approaches, ``folks are thinking more about car repairs.''
Though he said the Akron AAA does not receive a lot of complaints about repair fraud, he believes most of the problems motorists encounter concern ``the biggest and most generic problem in the (automotive service) industry-miscommunication.''
``What is perceived to be a fraud is often not that at all,'' Mr. Duffy explained. ``The customer simply did not understand, nor did the garage properly explain the situation.'' But, he added, in the vast majority of cases, not enough information was conveyed to the customer about why certain repairs or parts were necessary.
``If there's a single greatest area that needs constant attention, it's having the customer understand why a garage needs to do what it's doing,'' he said.
Problems can usually be solved, he asserted, by a third party getting involved as a mediator and ``translator.''
Mr. Duffy contends most auto service technicians ``are hard-working, honest people,'' though, like in any industry, the unscrupulousness of a few inevitably can tar the reputations of many.
In an effort to protect their members, some AAA clubs participate in what he referred to as the ``AAA-approved auto repair program.''
Much like the association's practice of rating hotels and motels, repair facilities that participate ``must meet very stringent standards in order to use the `AAA-approved' sign,'' Mr. Duffy said.
A shop enters into a contract with the AAA, which empowers the association to ``act as the mediator and final say in problems, should they occur for members,'' he said. ``That's the closest we get to recommending a garage.''
Those standards cover certain equipment a shop must use, training of staff, follow-up procedures to customer complaints, and ``just how the shop stands behind its work and the warranties it issues with its repairs,'' Mr. Duffy said.
Participating shops are frequently inspected by AAA staff members to ensure those standards are being maintained.
``It provides a motorist with the assurance that if something does go awry, there is, by agreement, a third party available to them to resolve their problem,'' he said.
While the Akron club is not currently involved in the program, Mr. Duffy said it is considering joining it within the next 24 months, and would probably sign up about 20 shops in Summit County, where Akron is located.
``The automobile is not getting one bit easier to work on,'' he said. ``From our emergency road service standpoint, when a car's electronics go haywire, there's precious little on the scene the AAA can do to repair it.
``The days of filing down the points and sticking a screwdriver in the carburetor are gone.''
Consequently, he said ``it's a fact of life for us'' that the club has run up higher costs towing vehicles because of the inability at the roadside to get them running.
As far as service fraud goes, ``it's rarely a case where a facility does a job all wrong,'' Mr. Duffy noted. Sometimes problems are caused by the ``economic restraints'' placed on a shop by a customer only willing to spend $100 on a car that needs $300 in repairs.
He speaks from experience.
Mr. Duffy worked in a AAA-approved garage to help put himself through school. He joined the AAA in 1970, serving as its road service manager for 7.5 years before becoming Akron club president.