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How to Spot a Boatyard Scam

the infamous Jolly 
Roger pirate flag

Here are a few pointers on avoiding being scammed on marine engine repairs

First the good news. A vast majority of boatyard technicians and marine mechanics are honest, competent, decent individuals, the kind of people who make good neighbors. But unfortunately, horror stories are surfacing about boat owners being ripped-off by unscrupulous boatyards and marine engine repair shops. Truth be told, it’s always been that way, but with the world economy struggling, well, you get the picture. With that in mind here are a few pointers on avoiding being scammed.

ABYC Certified Technician logo.jpg

Most of important of all the things you can do to protect yourself is to know who you’re doing business with. So before you sign a work order for any hull or engine repairs, first ask the yard foreman or service manager for certification from a recognized marine-industry authority that unequivocally shows the technician actually has the know-how to do the job right the first time. Know that an American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) Certified Technician qualifies in any one or all eight areas of expertise: electrical, systems (plumbing, water systems), diesel and gasoline engines, corrosion, air conditioning/refrigeration, composite boat building, and ABYC Standards (an overall certification that's ideal for marine surveyors and engineers). Similarly, each engine company has its own schools, courses and diplomas.

Besides marine industry certification find out the prospective shop’s word of mouth reputation. Ask around at launch ramps and dockside. Consider contacting the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints of substance on record. That said, while reputation is vitally important, don’t necessarily believe everything you hear. As sure as the sea is salt you’ll hear both praise and condemnation heaped upon the same boatyard or dealer service department. It’s human nature. Some boaters harbor baseless grudges for no good reason while others are just plain bliss ninnies who don’t have a clue when they’re being taken to the cleaners. Do take both sides of the story with a grain of salt and decide for yourself what the good and bad PR means.

Obviously certification is meant to preclude the most aged of all scams, namely an utter incompetent working on your chariot, Conestoga wagon or modern day boat. When this happens a shade tree mechanic agrees to troubleshoot and repair your engine. Except the pseudo-tech doesn’t know what he or she is doing. This wrench bender without credentials is nothing more than a remove and replace artist who serially replaces one component after the other, praying each bead in the rosary chain will fix whatever is wrong with the engine. Sometimes the miscreant never finds out what’s wrong and you’re still stuck with a huge repair bill and a basket case motor. Establishing competence with a credential check prevents this scam.

Another similar scam is not derived from incompetence, but rather from socio-pathological greed. Be sure to be sitting down when they hand you the repair bill. It will show a litany of parts that have allegedly been replaced. You must dutifully pay for all of them or be subject to a mechanic’s lien. It doesn’t matter that few or no parts were actually swapped out. It gets worse. The more sophisticated among this brand of scam artists makes it look like a part was changed by wrenching its mounting bolts in and out in order to scuff up the heads of the bolt. To the untrained eye it looks like actual work was done. Because of this scam most reputable shops will give you all a box with all the bad parts accounted for, in a good faith effort to prove work done. The only problem is if you ask a scam artist where the old parts are, he slithers into the back room, roots around in the junk bin and give you bad parts off somebody else’s motor. It’s virtually impossible to prove the guy stole from you. Once again this is why reputation is so important.

I once spotted an inboard installation with what was supposed to have been a replacement long block, a brand new motor except for the old intake and exhaust manifolds, carburetor, distributor and alternator. But instead it was an older engine with many hours logged over a number of seasons. Some of the telltale clues were the lousy paint job replete with thin spots and sagging runs meant to disguise its true age; old gaskets peaking out between the cylinder head and block and bolt heads with worn corners that betrayed the fact that sometime in its history the cylinder head had been replaced. New gaskets look clean. A new long block’s bolt heads don’t have paint chips knocked off the corners.

A variation on the theme is when a perfectly good component part is falsely deemed worn-out and replaced with a new one. You end up buying components that were perfectly serviceable. The double whammy is that you pay for labor that wouldn’t have had to be done and the cost of an unnecessary new part. One instance of this is happening comes thanks to ethanol-laced fuels that attract water and degrade performance. Here’s the scammer’s scenario. A grim-faced and unscrupulous mechanic tells you ethanol has ruined the carburetor. It is beyond repair. Sigh. It must be replaced at a cost of several hundred dollars. Plus shipping. Except that all the carburetor truly needs is for the gum and varnishes to be matter-of-factly flushed from its passages and jets. It’s an easy fix. But instead the thief sells you a spanking new carburetor and keeps your perfectly good old one which he in turn cleans and sells as a rebuilt to another hapless soul whose carburetor ethanol supposedly killed. The scammer made money on both carburetors. Prevent having to deal with this malady in the first place by installing a fuel/water separator with a 10-micron filter element and regularly draining off any water that may have accumulated.

Another common scam to be wary of is for a technician to falsely claim a perfectly functional ignition pack or coil is bad when all that’s wrong is faulty spark plugs. Or, sometimes a thief will claim the marine engine need sa new set of Iridium spark plugs at $20 a pop, plus $150 labor, when the two-year old engine already has them installed. Hint: they existing plugs are at two years are barely broken in, so to speak.

With the hull proper, the most common scam is to simply pad the number of hours worked, or assign more men to a job than is required. Good luck proving it. Remember you signed a work order agreeing to pay. On bottom jobs the scam is sloppy work. You’ll may or may not get every drop of anti-fouling paint you paid for. What’s worse, sometimes the deck apes don’t follow the directions printed on the label to the detriment of the life of the bottom paint and its effectiveness throughout the season. Here the common sense solution is due diligence. Research exactly how the paint is supposed to be applied and be on site when it is applied making sure re-coat and launch times are followed. Of course, if you check out the yard and trust them, you won’t have to do that.

So what are the options if it appears you’ve been ripped off? Take a deep breath. Then get a second opinion, which means hiring a marine surveyor or disinterested repair shop to check the work. If you truly were scammed consult with your lawyer. Consider filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Finally, Break Out Another Thousand (BOAT).