Late last year, the Federal Trade Commission accused a group of auto dealerships in Virginia and Maryland of mailing fake recall notices to more than 21,000 vehicle owners in an attempt to spur business for their service departments. These weren’t the first dealerships to try this, and they won’t be the last.

The trick works like this. A dealership mails out postcards warning drivers that their vehicles have been recalled because of a potentially dangerous problem. Car owners are advised to call the number provided to arrange for the necessary repairs to be performed by the dealership at the manufacturer’s expense. These notices don’t seem suspicious—tens of millions of cars are legitimately recalled each year—but they cite a recall that doesn’t exist…or a real recall that doesn’t apply to your car. 

Shortly after these car owners drop off their cars at the dealership, they get bad news—the mechanic spotted an unrelated problem while doing the recall repair. This new problem is not covered by the recall, so the car owner must pay for repairs out of pocket. The problem cited might be something completely fabricated by the dealership, or there truly might be a problem.

In a variation of this trick, a scammer calls or e-mails a victim…claims to work for a dealership or automaker…says that the victim’s car has been recalled…and requests his/her credit card number (or other sensitive data). 

What to do: When you receive an automotive recall notice in the mail, enter your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) into the National Highway Traffic Safety ­Administration’s recall website to confirm that the recall is real and applies to your car (NHTSA.gov/recalls). 

Ignore phone calls and e-mails claiming that your vehicle has been recalled—legitimate recall notices arrive in the mail. Exception: If you register for automatic recall warnings through the NHTSA.gov website, you will receive recall e-mails in addition to mailings. 

If a dealership doing a recall repair—even a legitimate recall repair—tells you it has identified an unrelated problem, consider taking the car to an independent mechanic to confirm the problem.