Five Worst Car Maintenance Scams

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My Favorite MechanicFinding a good mechanic or shop that you can trust is very difficult, so when you find one, it pays to stick with them. It’s why I always take my car to the same place every time I have an issue. There have been a couple times when I, or my lovely wife, have brought it in for a minor issue and they sent us on our way without a bill. One time one of us rolled over some tar that stuck to the tire, leading to a bit of a shake and some thumping. We brought it in, they scraped it off, and sent us along free of charge (they didn’t even charge for labor). That’s good service and, when you think about it, it’s how business should be done.

So that’s what makes some of these car maintenance scams so egregious. It’s businesses thinking of the short term, rather than the long term, and wanting to make a quick buck off a sucker. Many of these are scams because they don’t outright rip you off, they just overcharge you for a service you don’t need.

Shampooing Your Engine

I remember when my friend brought his car into the shop for some routine maintenance and the salesperson sold him a service where they’d shampoo his engine. They cleaned the exterior of his engine of the oil, dirt, grease, and grime that every engine in the world has on it (it’s making hundreds of little explosions, of course it’ll get dirty!) for a hundred bucks or two. The service is completely unnecessary, the engine doesn’t need to be shampoo’d and if you really want to clean it, you can buy your own shampoo for less than a hundred bucks or two!

Engine Flush

Whereas shampoo is for the outside, an engine flush is for the guts of the engine. In some cases, an engine flush is necessary if your engine has a buildup of sludge or other gunk. Many places will recommend a flush even when it’s unnecessary because they know most people will just agree to it. The only time you will need an engine flush is if you’ve been driving the car for years and notice a buildup of material under the oil cap. If there is sludge, it’ll get cycled into the motor oil and some of it will collect on the oil cap. If the shop says you need it because your oil is dirty (it gets dirty and loses that nice brown color the moment it cycles through the engine), run.

Clean Your Fuel Injectors

It seems that all the scams are focused on the engine, huh? Well, this one is another classic that preys on the ignorance of drivers. Fuel injectors do need to be cleaned but usually not until they’ve put on a lot of miles (think 100k+), so if you’re looking at a 20,000 mile car and the mechanic says you need them cleaned, they’re full of it. If you are really concerned, you could add fuel injector cleaner to your gas tank on your next fill up (it’s recommended you use it every other oil change, that’s how infrequently) to help assuage your fears.

Gas Saving Devices

They do not work. Consumer Reports has studied this extensively and they have yet to find something that actually improves fuel economy. Don’t accelerate too quickly, don’t slam on the brake, empty your trunk of junk, learn to coast effectively, pick up some tips of hypermilers, and don’t buy “gas saving devices.”

Auto Transmission Flush

If you have an automatic transmission vehicle, the mechanic might recommend that you flush and replace it. I’ve known, from when my dad flushed and replaced the transmission fluid in his car, that this is not something you want to do yourself as it can take a lot of time and can get a little messy. But, it’s also something you won’t need until at least 60,000 miles and not even then, if you have a filter (which many cars do). Check with your owner’s manual for how often this should be done.

Those are five of the worst car maintenance scams out there but they are certainly not the only ones. Whenever a mechanic recommends you do something, take it with a grain of salt unless you have the level of trust I have with my mechanic. Even then, double check their recommendations against your manual, online resources, and any car experts you know before you shell out a few hundred bucks for a procedure.

What’s the worst thing a car mechanic tried to pull on you recently? An engine shampoo? Replacing your air filters? Washing your undercarriage?

(Photo: sylvar)

{ 39 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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39 Responses to “Five Worst Car Maintenance Scams”

  1. Greg says:

    Any fluid flush is most likely to be a scam. Last time I had my car serviced they wanted to flush the steering fluid. I said no but read up on it just in case I was making a mistake. Turns out machines to flush fluids are becoming very popular and they allow shops to perform these services quickly and cheaply. Since they are so high margin, they push these services non-stop. When in doubt refer to your owner’s manual.

  2. I agree with most of these scams. Although I am not a mechanic, I know what work needs to be done on my car and roughly how it should cost.

    Recently, my auto-care-location-of-choice tried to scam me. (I’m now considering finding some one else.) My wife’s “Check Engine” light came on. I asked them to read the code for me. They wanted to charge me $99 to plug up a small device and click one button (about 30 seconds of work).

    Looking around, apparently many places charge for this service. Auto Zone does it for free! Guess who got my business that day.

    • Jay says:

      Yes some do it for free, At our place diagnostics fee is waved if vehichle is repaired at our shop. Just cus it could read for example… Po 301..its a misfire in cyl #1. Some coils could arc out and set that code.Coil packs can miss on 3, set a code for 1.Fords mostly dont give you a cyl. Most cases, getting the code read sends you in direction to go or are there underlying problems seting that code and you just hanging parts at no avail…So yeah,Free scan at auto zone then they sell you a part that last 3 months. Take it from a pro

    • Automan77 says:

      Actually, nobody got your business, because you paid nothing, which is the value of AZ’s free reading. The truth is, it SHOULD cost consumers for the reading AND the diagnosis as to what the cause of the “Check Engine” or “Service engine soon” light is. Not only is that NOT free, it shouldn’t be. That requires thousands of dollars of diagnostic equipment and skill beyond the layman’s ability.

      • Matthew says:

        A wrench is also a tool that mechanics use, do mechanics charge $100 to use it? No, they charge hourly for most work completed, I think the average rate is $65-$90 a hour. But for a garage to charge someone $100 for 10 minutes of work diagnosing their car is just crooked. Ya some scan tools are expensive, but you can get basic ones for $200.

      • GTFO says:

        Layman’s abilities? It’s a car, not a NASA space station.

  3. cubiclegeoff says:

    I’d like to know more about how my car works so I know when its a scam or not, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet. However, the simplest of all scams is changing your oil every 3,000 miles. Most places still push it, but the car manual generally says 5,000-7,500+ miles between oil changes.

    • Al says:

      Cheapest insurance for a long lasting motor you can buy.

    • Automan77 says:

      This is what is great about the new computer based oil interval reminder in many newer cars. The vehicle’s own computer will actually calculate interval based upon driving conditions and habits. So…. intervals can range from a low of about 4,000 miles up to 7,500 miles.

  4. paavels says:

    Shampooing engine – it costs exactly $10 in car wash (atleast in my place) and the job is done in 10 minutes. Yes, keeping engine compartment clean is good thing, however paying $100+ is insanity.

    But I’d like to disagree with cubiclegeoff. Oil changes depends on car and the oil itself. I remember Mitsubishi Evo needed to flush oil each 6000km. However for regular cars cycle is 10000+ km (depending on oil). But the number comes from oil manufacturer and you should stick with it, car manual just recommends the type of oil you should use.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      Car manuals provide the maintenance schedule, which includes oil changes. Most now have a minimum of 5,000 miles.

      • Scott says:

        Edmunds recently did a study and they said 6-10,000 mile oil changes are now the standard, but most people won’t tell you that. The newer cars are what they refered to and said its a waste to do otherwise…

        • Brenda says:

          My car uses a mix of oil/synthetic oil. They say synthetic is better. Does this mean you can go a little longer between oil changes?

  5. FlyFisher says:

    Are there any directories around that attempt to list and rate “good” and honest mechanics, as well as other services such as plumbing, etc.?

  6. Matt K says:

    which mechanic do you go to that helps you out like that? I’d like to find one in the area!

    • I find the best mechanic recommendations are on the enthusiast forums for your particular car. I found an awesome Mazda guy that way when my previous mechanic went out of business. More recently, I recommended that Richard (my partner) check out the Acura forums and he found a great one here in San Diego that I can also take my car too. (Fortunately we both drive Japanese cars, so the mechanics will work on both.)


  7. zapeta says:

    I always feel like I’m getting scammed. I always say no to any extra stuff and go investigate afterward to see if I really need what they said I did. It would be nice if there was a directory of honest mechanics…sometimes they are hard to find, especially in a pinch.

  8. Andy says:

    The best way to make sure you’re not getting scammed is to know your car. At the very least, know what features your car has.

    I had a dealer tell me (well, my wife) that a $500 coolant line needed to be replaced on our Caravan. She was very familiar with the tactics of this dealership and always responded with “I’ll let my husband check it out.” Turns out they wanted to replace the line that runs to the rear HVAC unit to provide heat to rear-seat passengers. **This van had no rear HVAC unit!**

    Same dealer, same visit, dealer says the water pump is leaking. I took it to an independent shop, he confirmed that it was, and replaced it at a significantly lower price than the dealer quoted. Next visit to the dealer, they said it was still leaking. Bunch of scam artists.

    Question everything you’re told when a “repair” is suggested to you. Always check a recommended service against your owner’s manual. Especially if it’s a dealership pushing for it, ask why they’re recommending it if the people who *built* the car don’t.

    The dealer will always charge ridiculous rates for brake pad/rotor replacement. Same with tires. Find a good, locally-owned tire shop & mechanic (may be 2 different places). My father had a guy who knew the service history of his cars without having to look it up. Dad would call him up and he’d say “Battery died? Didn’t I put one in there for you 2 years ago?” That’s good service. You’ll pay less for the labor alone – dealers charge very high labor rates.

  9. Shirley says:

    I’m feeling so very darned lucky after reading these comments. Our son works in the auto parts dept for the dealership we use.

  10. CreditShout says:

    Haha I’ve definitely heard of all of these things before. They make it out to seem like an engine shampoo is necessary. Think about it…really? I’m sure a ton of suckers fall for it though!

  11. Eddie says:

    One of the most undervalued, best ways to spend some of your free time is to take an adult ed course in car repair, often available with flexible hours at community colleges. A hundred bucks or two that will save you thousands in spotting scams and doing simple things yourself.

    And I’m with those siting oil changes as a scam. The blanket 3k change is long past due to be replaced in favor of a car-by-car, driving style specific standard.

  12. Frako says:

    Last year, my wife, recently arrived in the U.S., was trying to save money when buying gas, so she filled up at the ethanol (85) pump. Shortly thereafter, the “check engine” light went on and, when she told me what happened, I suggested she take it to the dealer the next day to find out what they said. I did some research online in the meantime, which said that cars nowadays are able to run with gas at a 90-10 mix, and some even with an 85-15 mix (but her Corolla was not included in the list). The online sites recommended that cars having problems with this mix should run the car for a number of miles and keep on topping off the tank with regular gas. The dealer, however, said that they needed to flush the engine, etc., and that it would cost a thousand dollars. She called me to find out if she should do that (we don’t have money to just throw away like that but what we both know about cars is next to nothing) and I told her to drive and keep filling the tank whenever she could. As she was preparing to leave, the guy at the shop said that if she paid in cash they would do the job for half the price they had been quoting her. She left, did as I had told her to do, and several days later, the light went off. No engine problems over a year later. I should add, however, that the websites I checked all say that engines in cars not equipped to handle 15% ethanol will eventually start to act up if they are constantly filled up with 15%.

  13. cdiver says:

    Imagine that, my oil is darker after 3-5k miles than it was before I put it in. Same as my powersteering and radiator fluid. Scammers.

  14. jbridges says:

    It is true that there are a lot of scammers out there. That makes the honest technician look bad as well. I have been an automotive technician for over 19 years and have seen the advancement in technology from simple carburated vehicles to advanced high pressure direct injection vehicles that are becoming popular these days. I, for one, have never scammed or will ever scam anyone as I would never want anyone to scam me. I have had my share of scamming done to me in other lines of business not related to automotive. My suggestion to all customers is to get to know your technician and talk to him or her. When you get on a first name basis between the two of you, there is more compassion that grows. Most generally have been yelled at by customers and already have a shield up when approached by an unknown customer. Once that barrier is down and the technician knows your not there just to yell at them, they will talk to you and answer just about any question you may have. And one last thing, technicians are humans and just like most people, we make mistakes from time to time. A good technician will make it right!! A bad one…well. I would suggest finding another technician!!!

    • Scott says:

      I think I found one of the honest ones. He changed the timing belt and 2 other belts for $198 for labor & belts on a 2002 Toyota Avalon. He has done 3 different services for me and he will get all my business based on the first 3. He doesn’t speak English all that well, but I’m fluent in Chin-lish. He keeps a very clean shop and is within 100 ft of my work! He will get my work because I trust him and I recommend him to all my co-workers. Good business practices get you more business…

      I’ve also heard of the dishonest ones or companies that “push” un-needed parts or services to boost “average per customer billings” and put bonuses tied to this. THIS IS FRAUD, no 2 ways about it. This came from someone who worked for FIRESTONE and my wife got this exact thing happen to her. I had just replaced the transmission fluid (at Toyota dealer) in her car and at her next oil change, FIRESTONE said she needed to do this…

      Best advice is get only what you go there to get done and don’t let them sell you more. If you have 2 or 3 others to tell you you need something, do your own research and get to know your car.

  15. Brandon says:

    Two of the services mentioned above are completely legitimate, and often recommended my vehicle manufacturers. The Motorist Assurance Program (MAP) has guidelines for any service suggested or required for any vehicle. Fuel injector service, also called fuel cleaning service, is a very helpful, preventive maintenance service…when done correctly and with the correct cleaning fluids/tools. The auto transmission flush service is absolutely required on some vehicles, many of which are not equipped with a serviceable filter at all!
    I recommend you consult your owner manual and MAP guidelines, and visit a reputable service center, especially one participating in MAP. Look also for ASE certifications, good reputation and fair warranties.
    Car maintenance isn’t cheap, but it also is unfair to make your accusations just because it is just that, or that you’re unfamiliar with the service suggestion.

  16. mpip says:

    People that skip all of the services eventually wonder why their engine or transmission suffered a catastrophic failure. Avoid the dealers, they are a scam from the top down. Find a good independent mechanic. Get recommendations from friends and co-workers. Many of the best mechanics don’t have to advertise. All word of mouth.

  17. Anthony says:

    I find some of the comments in your article to be extremely misleading, and oughtright dangerous to car owners. Engine flushing is a necessity, and should not be ignored. I purchased a used car, pulled the engine, and cleaned the block. Some of the passages for coolant were so clogged, that I had to physically push the sludge out. This sludge was preventing the coolant from properly circulating in the engine block. Furhtermore, a clean engine runs cooler, and also lets the owner, or mechanic know where leaks are coming from. A clean engine is also LESS prone to catching on fire. Once an engine catches on fire, all of that excess leakage simply fuels the fire. I agree that the number of shady mechanics is high, but good preventative maintainance will keeep an engine in good operating condition for many years.

  18. lanceautostation says:

    I own a repair shop and I 100% agree that shampooing your engine is a scam, however two of the services you mention as scams are if done when needed very legitiment services. Fuel system cleaning done with the proper equipment and not just a can of cleaner poured into your fuel tank can improve your fuel economy a significant amount. Here is why, there is a fuel managment computer on every car built after about 1985 after 1996 they became much more efficiecnt. This computer monitors the exhaust temperature of your engines exhaust. If the temperature is high that means the mixture is lean or not a lot of unburned fuel. If the temperature is low this means there is a significant amount of unburned fuel going out of the engines exhaust. There is a valve called a EGR valve “Exhaust Gas Recycling valve” because of emmision laws the vapors from your engines exhaust must be captured and run back through the engine to lower the amount of hydrocarbons coming from your vehicles exhaust. This runs exhaust gases from 500-900 degrees back into your intake manifold. The vapors from the engines crankcase cannot escape into the atmosphere either so they vent these crankcase or oil vapors into the intake manifold usually very close to the EGR port. This means that these oil vapors are exposed to 500-900 degree temperatures and causes them to burn to the inside of the intake manifold. Fuel does not pass through this part of the engines intake system, so adding additives to your fuel tank do nothing to help clean this this build up. I have seen build up as thick as 1/8″ inside the intake plenum. there are also several sensors that the computer uses to adjust the air fuel mixture for your engine. when these sensors get deposits on them they don’t send the correct information back to the computer and most often they cause the computer to add more fuel than the engine needs. I have had customers Get a 30% increase in fuel mileage by doing nothing except a FUEL SYSTEM CLEANING. So if done when needed and done correctly this can be a huge benifit for your vehicle. The customer that got the 30% mileage increase was a 110,000n 2002 chevy pickup that had never had a fuel system cleaning done to it.

  19. Scott says:

    “if done when needed very legitiment services.”

    And we have to rely on people we don’t know and who want to make a living to give us an honest assessment?

    Educate yourself so you don’t get the shaft or find someone you don’t get up-sold every time you go to them.

    “built after about 1985 after 1996”

    Does anyone keep cars this long anymore and who really wants a 1985 Reliant K car? The 80’s and 90’s styling stinks…

  20. Andy says:

    “Does anyone keep cars this long anymore and who really wants a 1985 Reliant K car? The 80’s and 90’s styling stinks…”

    I’m planning on keeping my (paid-off) 2003 at least another 5 years, which would put it at 13 years old – 1996 is only 14 years ago, so it’s in the ballpark there. My goal is to maintain at most one car loan at any given time – which means getting 10 years out of each car if I’m on 5-year loans.

    $1000/year in maintenance & repairs beats $300/month for a loan.

    • Scott says:

      I forgot about trucks; they are classic styling that do not go bad in my book as long as you don’t hunt & farm that gets them scratched all to heck…

      “$1000/year in maintenance & repairs beats $300/month for a loan.”

      AMEN to that! We have a 2002 Avalon & 2006 Mazda6. Just put $800 into the Avalon (tires & timing belt) and we’ll probably have it another 4-5 years at least. This has been a great “grandma car” as my friends put it…

  21. Rich says:

    Brake fluid (every 2-3 years) and power steering fluid (every 60-75k or so) should be changed actually, and flushing them is really nothing more than running new fluid through the system until the old stuff is pushed out.

    The PS fluid change will extend the life of the pump and the steering rack seals.

    Brake fluid change will prevent corrosion in the system, but also prevent you from “boiling” the fluid on a long hill, because brake fluid absorbs moisture which lowers its boiling point.

    But even if you wait on doing either/both of these for years, the car won’t just burst into flames… But no fluids in the car last forever. (Except blinker fluid!) 😉

  22. Accord2010 says:

    My wife just took her car in for a scheduled warrenty check. The dealer said she had rat feces in the engine compartment and had to replace a filter. Cost 125 bucks. Was wondering if anyone else has been hit with this recently. I know this does happen… very uncommon. But this would be a sweet scam for repair shops to pull! I don’t think any woman would say …SHOW ME THE POOP… Eh! you never know!

  23. Rick says:

    I work in the automotive field. I see distrust from some customers every day at work. I can’t speak for all shops, but any fluid change recommendations made here are based on their vehicle manufacturer’s scheduled maintenance for their particular car. Some people will believe you’re trying to up sell them unnecessary services, and will ignore any maintenance on their vehicles until there are problems. Some of the services mentioned above are listed in the owner’s manuals of a large majority of cars. They are not scams, and they are recommended at varying mileage intervals depending on the vehicle.

    One last comment about the oil change schedule – what most people don’t realize is that their driving habits put them under their manufacturer’s definition of severe service. I hear it often from people who quote their owner’s manual as being able to go X amount of miles, but a large proportion of people use the mileage recommendation for non severe service. Most vehicles are between 3,750 to 5,000 miles for severe service conditions. The main two manufacturers that recommend anything much higher than that are BMW and Mercedes with intervals of 10,000 to 15,000 miles.

    Eh, this is probably not going to change anybody’s mind anyway. I will stop rambling. To summarize, this article is potentially dangerous for the uninformed and much too broad in it’s accusations.

  24. Maya says:

    I went to Toyota dealer few days ago to get an oil changed on 2009 Corolla ($37K). I ended up paying additional $65.00 for them to “clean rear brake shoes”. I was told my car is only using front brakes and if they don’t do this right away, “I will wear off my front breaks very fast”. I told them to go ahead and clean them. My friend says it was a scam. What do you think: is it a scam or not?

  25. George says:

    Just came from getting an oil change. Of course one of the first things they reccomended was an engine flush for an additional 65 dollars. I already knew better so I refused. Buyer beware!!!

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