It has happened to me at least five times in the past year. As I drive by a parked car or pickup, the horn beeps frantically, and the man in the driver’s seat gestures desperately for me to stop.
Great Scott man—what is it?! Is the baby seat on the roof? Am I dragging a gas hose?
Nope. He points out the large dent in my fender, and says some version of “I can fix that for you—cheap.”
“Sorry, not now. I’m on my way to work.”
“I’ll come to your work; you’ll save a lot of money from the body shop. I’ll do it right there for $300. It’ll be good as new.”
The first time it happened was off Boston St., in the Can Company parking lot. The sell got harder. When I started to get that uncomfortable feeling—that “say yes or the universe will continue to spin out of balance” feeling—I knew I had to say no.
“No—I’m good. But do you have a business card or something?”
He reluctantly handed me a small piece of paper—one fourth of a standard printer sheet—with a 443 number written on it, and nothing else. I didn’t throw it out on the spot, but I quickly lost track of it.
Over the next months, it happened again and again. Sometimes in the Safeway parking lot on Boston Street, sometimes in the Can Company, a couple of times at the western end of Thames St. near the Maritime Museum. I grew irritated with the frequent and aggressive solicitations, to the point where, in the most recent instance, I looked straight ahead at my steering wheel as they pulled up beside me and beeped incessantly.
“Okay, I guess they don’t get that I’m ignoring them,” I told my passenger as I shifted into drive.
Put off by my rudeness, they sped forward and cut in ahead of me.
About a week ago, I discovered—to my immense shock—that there was an element of the unsavory to the occurrences.
Plodding through the Internet for story leads, I stumbled across this posting from Canton Car Wash’s Facebook page:
“SCAM ALERT: Please share with your friends as we have had many customers fall victim to the following vehicle repair scam and have seen a recent increase. We’ve also heard this is a nationwide thing. Please share any additional info you have about this in the comments. Thanks!
“How it works: Scammer approaches victims in a parking lot and tells them that they can fix damage on their vehicle right there and for a fraction of what a body shop would charge. Bondo is applied to the vehicle and the customer is told to visit the car wash where it will look like new with some wax. In fact we can’t remove the bondo, the “repair” looks worse than the original damage and the cost to fix the original damage will be much more now. We get several cars a month that come in to us this way and customers have paid anywhere from $100-$1,000 to these scammers for each repair. Don’t fall for this one, trust us!”
Chris Rivera, co-owner of Canton Car Wash, 1101 S. Ponca St., was more than happy to dish on the scam, which he has seen three out of the four-and-a-half years his business has been in existence. He put the post—which has been shared 48 times so far—on Facebook because he has been seeing more and more damaged cars pull in recently, with the owners having been told specifically to visit Canton Car Wash.
“It seemed like people were led to believe that [the scammers] were connected to us,” he said, “so we were concerned. We put it on Facebook, and we got responses from across the country. Maybe you won’t fall for it, but your sister, your mom, your brother-in-law—whatever—might.”
Rivera said that while young females seem to be the main target, he does have a male customer who paid $1,000 for a “repair.”
It has been established that cars are receiving additional damage, and customers are losing money, but I still had to ask a question: Is it possible that these guys are not scammers, that they are simply so incompetent that they don’t realize that they are screwing up people’s cars by “fixing” them?
The staff at Canton Car Wash say no way.
“They’re good at hiding who they are,” said Mark Kietzke, detail manager. “After the job, they give you a phone number and a first name, and tell you to call the number if there are any problems.”
Kietzke added that, according to his customers, whoever is at the other end of that number is rude and offers absolutely nothing in the way of customer service.
A car wash employee who did not want to be identified once happened upon a scam in progress, and surreptitiously filmed the incident. A police officer later ran the temporary tag on the scammer’s vehicle, and it was a fake, the employee said.
The perpetrators have also been known to change their own vehicles frequently.
“Some of them flips cars,” said Kietzke. “I know of one group of them that is in a different car every time.”
As I was talking to the staff at Canton Car Wash, an employee rushed into the lobby to say that a scam victim had just arrived to have his car detailed.
Mark Thomas said that he was at Santoni’s Super Market in Highlandtown a couple weeks ago, and “there were these young guys fixing scratches and dents.”
Thomas’s Impala had some scratches on the driver-side, so he figured he would save some cash and let the men do a quick job on his car.
“He pretty much took a little piece of sandpaper,” said Thomas, “and sanded down the scratches. Then he went into his trunk for like 15 minutes, and he eventually came across a can of Rust-Oleum.”
Thomas said that the man told him the visible spray paint on the car would “buff right out.”
And the man made an odd request: “He told me that detail shops usually ask questions. He told me to tell them I did (the repair) myself,” Thomas said.
The man wanted $275 for the “repair”; Thomas gave him $40.
I asked Thomas the same question I asked the car wash staff: Could these guys simply be really, really incompetent, or are they actively scamming people.
Both, said Thomas.
“I asked him to do something simple,” he said. “He was in his trunk for like 15 minutes. Then he went into the dollar store and came up with something—I don’t know what.”
I also spoke with a woman who didn’t want to be identified, “basically because it’s really, really embarrassing,” she said, adding that she has no doubt that she was the target of a scam.
“My friends know my car’s in the shop; they don’t know why,” she said.
The woman said she was approached about two weeks ago in the Safeway parking lot. While I found the men who approached me to be pushy and aggressive, she said that the two men who marked her—they identified themselves as “Vinny” and “Cody,” a couple of Russians who had recently moved to Baltimore from New York City—were “really very personable.”
“They were really nice, and they expressed a lot of concern about my car,” she said, adding that they showed her pictures of their children and chatted about common places that she and they had been. “They framed it in the sense that they were really trying to help out—that they were just some nice guys who weren’t getting paid enough in the shop where they worked.”
The woman said that as she was talking to the men, one of them started working on her car, even though she hadn’t given explicit permission.
“I was like, ‘OK,’” she said.
The woman paid the men $350. When she got to Canton Car Wash, there was another woman there who had just fallen victim to the same scam, and she found out that she had been had.
When I talked to her on Monday evening, her car was still in the shop and she didn’t know yet what it would cost to fix both the original damage and the scammer-caused damage. She said that she hoped her insurance would help, but she wasn’t too sure.
“It’s supposed to be for accidents, not for me paying someone sketchy to do faulty work,” she said.
The woman said that she has spoken to the police. If anyone is approached by suspicious men offering cheap auto-body repairs, she said that they should decline politely, go about their business, and call the police.
by Erik Zygmont