You’ve seen the ads — just take a photo after a car accident and you will get a quick estimate and a check from your insurance company — but how accurate are those "photo estimates?"
Some body shop owners across the country told Inside Edition’s Chief Investigative Correspondent Lisa Guerrero that photo estimates often underestimate the cost of damage sometimes by thousands of dollars because not all the damage can be seen with a picture.
“They are cheating and undervaluing, understating the actual damages on these cars,” Robert Jesberger told Guerrero.
Jesberger, the owner of Mid-Island Collision in Long Island, N.Y., says he's constantly battling insurance companies over what he calls "low-ball photo estimates."
Jesberger pointed to the case of 85-year-old Muriel Agostini. After her car was hit over the driver's side tire, she was told by her company, Allstate, to take a picture of the damage. Her granddaughter, Nicole, helped out.
“The first estimate we got was so low,” Nicole told Guerrero.
She said they gave her an estimate of "about $1,700."
When the body shop owner saw the damage, he said it couldn't be fixed for so little and convinced Allstate to pay much more — $11,667.
Nicole said they were "livid" after they heard the actual amount they would need to repair the damages.
Body shops believe insurance companies know many customers will just cash the photo estimate check without realizing they could be owed thousands of dollars more.
"Many people will deposit the checks. You have safety reasons — liability reasons — that these cars shouldn't be looked at the way they are being looked at," Jesberger said.
Shop owners say some cars are so damaged that they should have been taken off the road.
One example is a car owned by Dennis McCorkel. His photo estimate was $1,290 from Allstate. Less than an hour later, the insurance company said an “estimate has been mailed to you and the check is already in the mail,” he told Inside Edition.
Then he took his car to Gunder's Auto Body shop in Lakeland, Fla.
"The owner of the body shop looked at the estimate and laughed," McCorkel said.
The body shop owner, Ray Gunder, told McCorkel his car was unsafe and should be totaled.
Allstate eventually agreed and paid $7,396 — well above that initial $1,290 photo estimate.
Guerrero spoke with Michael Barry from the Insurance Information Institute, a trade association.
Guerrero told him what Inside Edition was hearing from the body shops we spoke to — that in many cases, the check that consumers receive is far below the actual damage done to this car and in some cases, people wind up driving dangerous cars.
"I would challenge your premise because auto insurers want to return safe vehicles to the roadways because they continue to insure the vehicle and their occupants," he said.
Muriel Agostini and her granddaughter are advising others to avoid a photo estimate. Instead, bring your car to the shop to get an estimate by a professional who sees your car in person.
The insurance companies, including Allstate and Liberty Mutual, say their top priority is to assure vehicles are fully and safely repaired. They insist that photo estimates offer flexibility and convenience to save their customers' time. They also say they work with body shops to pay any additional damage that is discovered.