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Auto repair mechanics ripping off customers; FOX31 Investigates

DENVER -- We’ve all experienced car trouble at some point and for most of us it means relying on a car repair shop to get us back up and running again.

But have you ever left a mechanic wondering if they’ve taken advantage of you? We went undercover and put 10 local repair shops to the test.

First, we took our 2007 Jeep Cherokee to the repair shop we trust to maintain our FOX31 news vehicles.

A certified mechanic inspected every system in our Jeep and verified no repairs were needed.

Then, we asked our mechanic to create a simple problem -- he disconnected one of six ignition coils to make the check engine light go on.

Our mechanic told us diagnosing the problem should be easy, because a diagnostic scanner -- standard equipment in all repair shops -- will immediately identify an issue with the coil and when the mechanic inspects it he will see it’s a quick and easy fix.

Then we rigged our Jeep with hidden cameras and hit 10 auto repair shops from the major chains to the “mom and pops.”

Seven out 10 shops found our problem right away and plugged the coil back in for a nominal fee.

One of the good guys, Glen’s Garage in Lakewood charged us $37.50 for labor.

That’s not what happened when we took our Jeep to a Northglenn AAMCO.

Our hidden cameras recorded a technician standing at the front of the car waving his flashlight back and forth. It takes less than 15 seconds for him to determine we need a brand new coil and six new spark plugs.

The service manager Larry told our producer, “so parts and labor you’re looking at $264.86.”

Investigative Reporter Heidi Hemmat went back to that AAMCO a few weeks later, and asked Larry if his technician actually looked at the coil or the spark plugs, Larry said, “I’m sure he did.”

Click the map above to see a larger version.

Click the map above to see a larger version.

Then we tried to show Larry how our coil was just unplugged, but he walked away and refused to comment.

AAMCO sent us this statement:

“AAMCO Total Car Care Centers are instructed and trained to perform a complete and thorough Multi-Point Inspection of every vehicle before providing any specific service recommendation. Apparently, the technician in this case relied on…a particular engine code rather than proceeding with the appropriate inspection that would have revealed the uncommon engine problem in this vehicle.”

We had a similar experience at the Meineke in Thornton.

Our engine camera shows the mechanic never even looked under the hood. Still, the shop manager told us we needed a new coil, six spark plugs and a fuel injection service for $411.

Our producer asked Meineke to take a second look at the coil and replace the part but only if it’s truly necessary.

Our cameras recorded the usually tightly fastened coil was so loose, it fell off in the mechanic’s hand. Instead of plugging it back in he replaces the part.

Heidi Hemmat went back to the shop, the manager admitted the mechanic had to have known the coil was disconnected.

We requested an interview with the owner of the Meineke, Rob Tracy.

He responded with a statement:

“The employee involved with the diagnosis of the vehicle was new to the management team which had just acquired the center two days prior to Fox's investigation. The employee responsible was let go because there is no tolerance for these types of mistakes.”

There’s no mistaking what our hidden cameras captured at Aspen Auto Clinic in Colorado Springs. The video shows the mechanic discovered the disconnected coil. He then called over another technician to take a look.

The two then share a good laugh before trying to charge us for a part we don’t need.

A few minutes later, our producer gets the bad news.

“Your No. 3 coil is bad. You’re looking at $281 with parts labor and diagnostic,” the service manager said.

We wanted to talk to the mechanics, but an Aspen Auto Care employee told us it was against company policy to talk to the media.

When we asked, “what is the policy on overcharging customers for un-necessary repairs?” She would not answer.

We made repeated requests for an interview with Aspen Auto’s owner, Greg Bunch.

Instead he sent us a statement that says in part:

“We…have begun an internal investigation to uncover the facts of the situation and address it appropriately. I believe I have some of the hardest working; honest and ethical people working in this organization and the mistakes of a few do not represent the company as a whole.”

Bunch also told us all four of his shops have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, and have won numerous awards for “Best Mechanic” in Colorado Springs.

He has plans to open a new branch in the metro area.

The owner of the Thornton Meineke has offered to refund FOX 31 Denver the cost of the new coil we purchased.

It can be hard to find a good mechanic. Click the slideshow below for some tips.

Filed in: Investigators

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