Originally created 10/17/01

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Bill Cloud may be the spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs in Atlanta, but he's also a consumer. Like everyone else, he said, he's received that dreaded call from his mechanic.

"You hand over your car for an oil change and they call you an hour later to say you need new brake pads," Mr. Cloud said. "What do you do? If you think the work is justified, get it done. If you're skeptical, get a second opinion."

Problem is, repairs have become so specialized and complicated that average consumers don't really know what work is justified and what isn't.

Mr. Cloud said some people don't even get the courtesy of a phone call - the shop just does whatever work it says is necessary and charges accordingly.

The best protection against surprises is to have the shop sign a written estimate that covers all the parts and labor necessary to fix the problem, Mr. Cloud said. It should also state that the shop will call before performing any service over the estimated cost.

Most shops have pre-printed estimate forms but are not required by law to fill them out, so it's the consumer's responsibility to make sure repair orders and estimates are in writing.

"The burden is on the consumer," Mr. Cloud said. "They need to make sure they get a signed document putting limitations on what work can be done. Some shops may be unscrupulous; others may think they're doing what's best. Either way, the burden is on the consumer to make sure they're notified before any extra repairs are made."

Unauthorized repairs may be a violation of the Fair Business Practices Act, enforced in Georgia by the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, which can be reached at (800) 869-1123. Consumers may be entitled to refunds on repairs that violate the act.

To avoid other surprises, it's important to know how mechanics charge for labor. Some shops charge a flat rate for each repair that is based on a pre-established time estimate. Others charge based on the actual time of the repair.

The Automotive Service Association, or ASA, requires members to disclose all repairs to consumers, said Ashley Weeks, the president of the Augusta chapter of the ASA.

Locally, 41 auto repair shops belong to the ASA, which mediates disputes between consumers and members of the chapter.

"Every shop has to abide by the ASA's strict code of ethics," said Mr. Weeks, who also owns Weeks Transmission on Jones Street.

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com.