Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beware of AAA Road Service Scams

I write about corporate fraud a lot, and it's sort of refreshing to write occasionally about small-time fraud, though not in this instance.

It's been pretty cold in New York, and recently I had to call AAA road service to get a jump start for my car.

So the guy arrives and hooks up my car to the jumper cables. Lets it charge for a while, or so it appears. I try cranking it up. Nothing happens. No cranking. "It's your starter," he says. OK, I say, tow me to my mechanic. No, he says, I'll tow it back to my garage and give you a new starter with a guarantee! No, I say, I"ll have it towed to my mechanic, and it so happens I have "gold" AAA so I can be towed anywhere within 75 miles for free.

He then calls somebody and grumbles, OK, I'll tap on your starter. So he hooks up the cables again, and while I'm cranking he's under the hood tapping something. Car starts.

I should point out that while he's doing this, the guy is cursing. "I appreciate it," I say. "Screw your appreciation" or words to that effect, he says. He tells me that if the car stalls I'm going to be stuck. Bad starter.

I drove straight to my mechanic, praying it wouldn't stall. He checked out the battery. Weak. The starter: fine. What about him having to "tap" my starter to get it going? My mechanic points out that the starter is buried under the car adjacent to the manifold, whatever that is, and totally inaccessible from under the hood. The tow guy would have to have had to crawl under the car to "tap" it. He was probably "tapping" the side of the engine while giving me a real jump start.

So here's what I surmised happened: The AAA tow operator could see that, well, this is not the newest car in the world, so it is not under warranty. He immediately saw me as a mark, so he didn't hook up my car my battery properly and didn't actually give it a jump start at all.

When I insisted on a tow to my mechanic, which for some reason another tow operator would have to do, he figured the new tow operator would have tried to give me a jump before hooking up the car, and it would have started right up, proving that the starter was OK.

The car did need a new battery, but the starter was, and is, fine. In fact, it was starting up my car with a weak battery, which proved it was in good shape. Had I fallen for this scam, I probably would have been sold a piece of junk that really would have failed at some point.

I've gotten in touch with AAA, and I'll be curious to see how they handle this situation. I've withheld the tow operator's name because AAA may want to investigate. I'd wager all of the people he serviced on that day were sold starters they didn't need. If they really do care about ridding themselves of a crook, they'll try a "sting" operation to prove it to their own satisfaction. Frankly, I have my doubts that they do, but we shall see.

The reason I have my doubts is that this is not some tiny, fly-by-night outfit. It is a big auto body shop on west side of Manhattan that has a website and includes AAA in its corporate logo, and says it is "endorsed" by AAA. This outfit pays AAA big bucks, I am sure. I doubt very much that something as minor as their members being ripped off will cause AAA to sever its connections with these mutts, but perhaps I am being too cynical.

Meanwhile I'd urge my fellow motorists to be careful, and watch out for this particular scam, which is really a pretty smart one, I have to admit -- taking advantage of cold, frightened, stranded motorists.

Don't let yourself be talked into repairs by tow operators. They're notorious for scams, and having AAA affiliation doesn't matter one bit.

And speaking of AAA -- insurance companies offer towing coverage that is much cheaper. I've belonged to AAA for years out of habit. I think the time may have arrived to break this habit.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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