In a perfect world, no one would try to rip you off. Clearly, though, we don't live in a perfect world.

No matter how hard you work for your money, there's always someone willing to take it away from you. There's no lack of opportunity for professionals who want to take advantage of customers. In today's busy world, it's tempting to trust someone else to do things you don't know how to do. But if you don't have any experience with someone, it pays to get a second opinion before spending a bunch of money.

Inflated estimates
Here's an example: The other day, I went to get an annual inspection for my car. It's 14 years old, so it's not in perfect condition, but it's in good working order -- or so I thought. When I took it to an inspection center I hadn't visited before, they told me I'd need to get front-end work done, turning a $29 inspection fee into a costly $500 repair.

Now I'll admit that at first, I took the mechanic at his word. Even though I hadn't had any obvious trouble, it didn't mean that some of the parts might need to be replaced. More importantly, who was I to question the advice of a professional mechanic? I didn't know anything.

But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was. When I asked for an explanation of exactly what was wrong, I didn't get a good answer. The mechanic seemed noncommittal at first, as though he didn't really want to answer my question at all. It just didn't feel right.

So when I got some badly needed new tires from another shop, I asked them to take a look. Sure enough, they thought everything was fine. And although I had to spend another $29, that was $471 less than I would have spent if I'd just ignored my suspicions.

Look twice before you leap
Unfortunately, there are many situations when you don't have enough knowledge to make an informed decision on the spot. If a doctor recommends a medical procedure, your first instinct may be not to take any chances with your health. If you need something done in a hurry, like repair work on your home, you might want to get started rather than question your initial estimate. For minor expenses, forgoing a second opinion isn't such a big deal. It's not a big calamity if you spend $20 on an oil change you could've gotten for $15 down the street.

But for big-ticket items, there's a lot more at stake. Consider: If you were selling something, you wouldn't want to jump at the first offer. Hopefully, better offers would come. That happens in the corporate world all the time. Shareholders of Guidant, for instance, earned an extra $1 billion last year by accepting a second opinion -- in the form of Boston Scientific's (NYSE:BSX) rival takeover bid -- after Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) was first out of the box. Similarly, owners of Retek got the same bump when Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) outbid SAP (NYSE:SAP).

The same holds true if you're the one doing the buying. It pays to take some time and get some more information.

  • Get recommendations. Friends or family members can give you great insight into the people they've worked with. Often, you'll find the perfect person to do the work you need.
  • Ask questions. Before you commit to using someone, take a few minutes to talk about what you need. If you like the way you're treated, that's a positive sign.
  • Go with your gut. Even if you're not 100% certain about someone, trust your first instinct. It's easy to dismiss those initial gut feelings, but more often than not, you'll avoid nightmarish situations by trusting yourself.

Much as you might like to, you can't put questionable professionals out of business single-handedly. But by trusting your judgment and taking a few extra precautions, you can make sure you're not their next victim.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger wants to thank every professional who does the right thing with their clients. He doesn't own shares of companies mentioned in this article. Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy gives you great customer service.