They run up to your car at red lights. They honk at you on busy roads. They call out to you in store parking lots. They may even knock on your door at home.
"Hey, lady, I can fix that dent in your car right here. I'll give you a great price."
Well known to many drivers with a dent or a ding, auto body freelancers ply the streets of Washington and other cities with pitches of an unbeatable price and quick service. And auto body shop managers report a marked increase in the number of people who are succumbing to the lure of a low-price offer. It is also high season for the activity: When the weather gets warm, the dent workers hit the streets.
"I've been in this business 15 years; this past year I've seen it the most," said Chris Lowe, manager of Laurel Auto Body in Laurel. "They really do a number on some of these people's cars that I've seen."
Legitimate body shop workers do not worry about losing business because of these roadside fast-talkers, but they do worry about the effect on their industry. The freelance dent repair workers often do substandard work and then disappear, further damaging the reputation of a business that is already quite unpopular.
That concern seems warranted if you listen to someone like Sue Gross of Rockville, who lumps the bad and the good all together. Her white Honda Accord has a dent above the right front wheel, and she has been approached by dent workers a few times, most recently by a group of guys honking at her while she drove through traffic in Georgetown. They offered to fix the bump in her car "for $200 or $300," she said. She had already gotten an appraisal from an auto body shop for $1,000. Both seemed ridiculous to her.
"This whole auto industry is just terrible," she said, shaking her head.
The dent workers manage to work under the radar of official Washington. Drivers with no body damage never see them. Insurance companies do not follow the problem because people do not report this work to their carriers. Even the police say dent fixers are notoriously hard to track or hold accountable.
"We only know about it if it gets brought to our attention by a citizen, and that rarely happens," said Cmdr. Robert Contee, who runs the Metropolitan Police Department's second district in Northwest Washington, where he knows many dent repairers roam the streets and supermarket parking lots. If they solicit business aggressively, like a panhandler, then officers can stop them. And if they are doing major repair work on public property, the police can intervene. Otherwise, it just goes unchecked.
"These guys, as auto body mechanics, they're doing terrible work," Contee said. "They'll get some takers, and if a person buys into that, who do they complain to?"
Joey Siganoff has been plying the roadside auto repair trade since he moved here from Brooklyn nine months ago, working in the very district that Contee runs. At an intersection in upper Northwest Washington, he approached a reporter with a dent in her car and agreed to talk about his work. Siganoff was with two other men, one of whom wore a cap from the Bethesda Mercedes dealer EuroMotorcars, where he said he worked. "They won't have a record of me because I'm new," he added, and declined to give his name.
Siganoff painted a picture of up and down days working the street -- sometimes leaving empty-handed and other days making anywhere from $700 to $1,600. "You get a lot of people who think you're a scam artist," Siganoff said. "There are a lot of guys doing this, but a lot of them, it's not good work."
To convince a potential but wary customer, he said, he shows off pictures of perfect before and after body work. Other than that, he said, "we just talk our heads off." There is no way for customers to know if Siganoff actually worked on the cars in the pictures. And if someone is dissatisfied with his work, he said, they do not have to pay for it. "That doesn't really happen," he said.
Auto body shop managers say they occasionally get outraged calls from people saying a man who worked for the body shop had botched a private repair job. Convincing them it was an impostor takes work.
"The Lindsay organization has been plagued by this same scam for about two years now," said Tim Doyle, director of operations for the Lindsay Collision Center in Springfield. "They approach that person and tell them they work for Lindsay and that they can fix that dent for $200. One time a victim of this scam wanted to walk through my shop to see if that person really worked here."
Matt Frei, chief correspondent in Washington for the British Broadcasting Corp., can't believe he fell for it. He's so mad at himself for letting two family cars get worked on by a con man that he says he and the charlatan who botched the work "deserve each other."
Several different dent repairers had come to Frei's Northwest house offering to fix the dents in the family's street-weary Ford Windstar minivan and BMW convertible sitting in the driveway. At first he resisted, but one day this spring, his resolve crumbled under pressure from a talkative dent repairer and his young son. Frei bargained the guy down to an acceptable sum.
"I finally ended up paying seven hundred bucks in cash for both those cars, which for a nanosecond seemed like a good deal but very quickly began to seem like an utter rip-off," Frei said. "Because $700 for two or maybe three hours' work is a pretty good hourly rate."
What's worse, as soon as Frei had agreed to the deal, the dent worker started drilling holes in the body of the minivan to yank out the dents. Seeing that was "a shock to the system," Frei said.
The dent fixers commonly drill holes in a car's metal to pull out the dents. But professional dent repair workers say it is almost never okay to perforate the body of a car because that can cause rust.
"Even if you putty over it, putty is porous. It'll rust under that putty," said Joe Mattos, owner of Mattos Pro Finishes, a chain of auto paint and supply stores based in Temple Hills.
Mike Anderson, the owner of Wagonwork Collision Center in Alexandria, said a customer he had this spring had damage to her fender that would have cost about $400 to repair. But she let a dent repairer talk her into fixing her car while she did her grocery shopping -- and ended up having to replace the whole fender for $1,600. She asked Anderson not to tell anyone -- including her husband.
"Most people are so embarrassed by it, that they fell victim to it, that they don't tell anybody about it," he said.
Another hallmark of the work is mismatched paint. Some dent repair victims say they were told they could go to any body shop to buy paint for the car or get a quick paint job.
Susan Demers of Bethesda could not get paint for her Honda from the Honda dealership, so she ordered paint to match her car from a New York distributor, per the instructions of the man who had repaired her dented door for $175. She did not want to pay him $100 to paint it, so he told her to spray paint in several layers.
"The more I repainted it, the more I didn't think it looked right," she said. She ended up paying a body shop more than $300 to sand the door and repaint it.
Dent repairers keep finding work because there are enough drivers on the road like Demers's neighbor Suzanne Goode, who hired the same person when he was trolling the neighborhood for work. "I don't really care much about aesthetics," she said, so she didn't mind using someone who she figured would not do a perfect job.
But once she was faced with a bumper surface that wasn't smooth and paint that didn't match, she figured she should wise up. "I guess we've decided that we can't keep doing these half-baked jobs on our cars," she said.
Body shop owners say drivers who don't get their dents fixed because they're too busy, don't want to spend the money or just don't care are keeping the dent workers in business. But they say they see no way to stop it.
"This industry has received a lot of black eyes," said Lowe of Laurel Auto Body. "It's really hard to earn people's trust and convince them you're not trying to gouge people. But the right way to do body work is very expensive. You get what you pay for."