Western Australia’s booming illegal car repair trade is hurting the licensed motor industry and putting lives at risk.
Organised crime gangs are pulling the wool over authorities’ eyes and ripping naive customers off and they are making a fortune doing it.
If you have been in an accident and your car is insured, there is a good chance it will be towed to a licensed panel beater.
The insurance company will then send an assessor to decide your car’s fate.
If it has significant structural or water damage it will be labelled a statutory write-off, meaning it can never be driven again.
But if the damage is minimal, the assessor has two options, either pay to fix the car or declare it a “repairable write-off”.
Repairable write-offs are delicensed and can only be driven again after going through a two-step assesment process.
Panel beater Rob Swan has been in the repair game for more than 30 years.
He said insurance companies are increasingly eager to write-off, rather than repair, damaged cars.
“We have heard from a number of assessors recently that its easier for them to write it off, less paperwork, goes away, on with the next one,” he said.
“The two words sort of contradict each other; repairable or write-off, I mean surely it’s one or the other.”
More than 11,000 cars were declared repairable write-offs in the past financial year.
Rob said the volume of cars being written off for economic reasons is depriving legitimate businesses like his of work.
“I think we’re all finding it pretty quiet out there at the moment,” he said.
“It has an impact. We’ve reduced our staff levels over the last 18 months from 8 to 5, so I guess it’s affecting employment.”
It is also allowing WA’s illegal repair industry to flourish.
The cars that insurance companies will not repair end up at Perth’s two major vehicle auction houses, Manheims and Pickles.
Hundreds of wrecks are sold in Perth every week and anyone can buy them.
Just a handful of cars end up with licensed repairers and dealers.
The rest go to private buyers, some of whom repair them with stolen or sub-standard parts before putting them back on the road.
Too dangerous to drive
Steve Moir from the Motor Trade Association of WA said people who buy illegally-repaired cars are placing their lives at risk.
“Probably the most alarming one was a family that bought a four wheel drive that had literally been cut in half and re-welded together,” he said.
“It had no airbags, so had it been involved in a crash it simply would have disintegrated.”
“We had another case just this week where a car had a crucifix placed over the centre of the airbag to hide the fact that the airbag had been removed.”
Mr Moir said backyarders are very good at hiding the evidence of a dodgy repair job.
“Your average person will not be able to tell and we’ve even had very experienced dealers caught with very well prepared cars,” he said.
But one man the crooks can not fool is former motor squad detective, Lance Synnerdahl.
He runs his own business, inspecting and buying new and used cars on behalf of private clients.
“I’m out there every day examining cars and I’m seeing it out of control,” he said.
“So much so, that I go to look at five or six cars and im lucky to find one in 10 thats not a problem.”
Mr Synnerdahl has shown the ABC countless examples of dodgy cars being advertised for sale in WA.
“I was told this one car had full logs and service history, had been owned since new, never been involved in an accident, essentially a pristine vehicle,” he said.
“But this vehicle had had a previous major accident on the front passengers side and older repair damage on the front driver’s side and rear of the vehicle.”
He pointed to another example, a four wheel drive that looked perfect to the untrained eye.
“This was a nightmare because everything is wrong with this vehicle,” he said.
“I would suggest this car has been in a rollover and also had major front on and side damage.”
When asked what happens if such cars are involved in serious accidents, Lance does not mince his words.
“People die,” he said.
The head of WA Police’s Vehicle Crime Unit, Detective Senior Sargeant Jason Beesley, said the illegal repair industry seemed to be dominated by crime gangs with links to the eastern states.
The unit was formed just this year to combat the growing amount of car theft in WA.
“This seems to be the new trend, the new thing they’re doing to make some quick money,” he said.
“It’s easy to pull off, it doesn’t take a lot of work because there’s not a lot involved in it and no-one’s going to identify who they are or where they live.”
Last year police charged two men with fraud over an alleged car-rebirthing and repair ring.
It was alleged the brothers were buying write-offs from auction, re-fitting the cars, winding back the odometers and then passing them off as higher spec models.
“That’s (yet) to go through the courts so it will be interesting to see what sort of penalty they get if they’re convicted, and if that’s going to be sufficient,” he said.
The NSW Government was so worried about the practice over there, it passed special anti re-birthing laws.
Dt Snr Sgt Beesley says that has had unintended consequences for WA, with gangs now sending more parts and cars here, where the rules are not so tight.
Slipping through the cracks
The current process of re-licensing a write-off with the Transport Department is designed to filter out dodgy repair jobs.
You must show receipts for any spare parts used and have the car checked by both an independent assessor and the Transport Department.
But many in the industry say the system is failing to pick up potentially dangerous cars.
“The transport authorities are under a lot of pressure because there is a lot of vehicles going through,” Mr Synnerdahl said.
“They have a limited time and they’re not trained to forensically examine vehicles.”
Steve Moir and Rob Swan share those concerns.
But Nina Lyne from the Transport Department is confident the current system works.
“I think we have a very good system here,” she said.
“I think the system has a number of checks and balances in it, but there will always be people out there who seek to go around the system.”
“The (assesors) have to go through a very stringent process, these people are specifically approved to do this work.”
“Those independent assesors are qualified mechanics so they obviously know cars inside out and where to look for various things.”
Ms Lyne said the department recently tightened the rules around what constitutes a repairable write-off, which has reduced the number going to auction.
Dave Hillyard from Consumer Protection is urging Western Australians to shop smarter when it comes to cars.
“The person selling the car is looking to make a margin and a profit on it from you so you’ve got to look after yourself,” he said.
He said a simple check of Australia’s Personal Properties and Securities Register (PPSR) will tell you if a car has been written off or stolen.
But many people do not bother checking it.
Consumer Protection has prosecuted 16 people for unlicensed dealing or repairs in the past two years.
The biggest fine imposed by the courts for illegal repairs was $10,000.
The MTA said the court system was letting the industry and consumers down.
“The fines need to be far more substantial to prevent this occurring,” he said.
“I mean, if I was taking a loss of $200 a car as a fine there’s not a lot of disincentive for me, if it was $10,000 a car that’s a disincentive.”
“What you do not want are those crimes just upping that location and moving to a new location and establishing themselves.”
The MTA said the only way to truly protect consumers is to shut down WA’s repairable wreck trade using similar laws to those in NSW.
It said no written-off vehicle, regardless of damage, should ever be re-licensed and allowed back on the road.
The State Government is currently reviewing WA’s Motor Dealers and Repairers Acts.
Rob Swan just wants better protection for his industry.
He believes the sale of write-offs should be restricted to licensed dealers and repairers, before it is too late.
“I think this is a very skilful job but unfortunately we’re not getting rewarded for what we can do and what we do do,” he said.
“I can be fined for employing a tradesperson who doesn’t have a license but that person can stay home and repair cars all day long.
“I’d like to think some changes will be made in the future for the people coming up behind us.”