GILBERT, Ariz. -- Most drivers dread the moment their check engine light turns on, and Michael Rataj says he wishes he would have noticed when his came on. That way he would have known something was wrong with the used car before he bought it.
“When I went and checked out the car, it was immaculate,” he said. “The inside looked like nobody had ever even ridden in it.”
It wasn't until after Rataj bought the car and after he drove it to his mechanic for an inspection that he found out the seller had actually removed the bulb behind the check engine light.
“If I had noticed that the check engine light was on I wouldn't have bought the car,” Rataj said.
Frank Leutz, owner of Desert Car Care Service Centers, said check engine lights that have been tampered with are becoming a common problem in his garage, especially with cars, like Rataj's, bought through Craigslist.
“This has got to be the lowest that I've ever seen,” Leutz said. “It is pure malice.”
Leutz showed 3 On Your Side one extreme case. Holding a speedometer with a crack in the lens, he says a con man broke it while trying to tamper with the engine light by scribbling it in with a black marker.
“They have to be very creative and artsy-like” Leutz said jokingly. “They're taking a black magic marker, they're removing the lens to that cluster and they're taking a black magic marker and carefully darkening any bulb.”
Fortunately, Leutz said there is an easy way for consumers to protect themselves.
When testing out a car, he said to put the key in the ignition, turn it halfway and watch which lights illuminate on your dashboard. Leutz said all of them -- even the check engine light -- should light up.
“If they don't see the check engine light coming on, there's a good chance there's foul play,” he explained.
Leutz said a surefire safeguard is to have the car you're thinking about buying checked out by a mechanic before you pay for it.
As for Rataj, he spent nearly $800 on repairs, sold the car and bought a new one. He said not getting the car checked out by a mechanic was a huge mistake.
Research mechanics before hiring them, and find out if they're certified with the Automotive Service Assocation.