Customers Beware! A List Of The Most Common Mechanic Scams

January 30, 2023

By the very nature of the occupation, we put a lot of trust into our mechanics. We trust them like doctors because they are; they’re doctors for our babies, our mechanical pediatricians. And with that trust comes the opportunity for unscrupulous behavior. While most mechanics are in their field because they love cars and helping people, there will always be those who are just looking to make a quick buck. Keep these shysters in mind next time your car needs some service to avoid getting a snake oil change.

Frequent Oil Changes

The technology in cars has come a long way since the 70s and 80s when many mechanics got their start. The old wisdom was to get the oil changed every three thousand miles. However, engine oils have come some way since then, as have motors and their lubricating systems. Most cars today can run five thousand miles before needing a change without any issues, some can run for more. Many vehicles will track their oil use and inform the driver when an oil change is due. This scam occurs most frequently at dedicated oil changers, and may not be an intentional slight - the mechanic may just be really old school in his knowledge. Your best bet is to check your car’s owner’s manual and follow whatever directions it gives you.

Not changing your oil frequently enough, however, may leave you open to our next scam.

Engine Flush

Getting your oil changed regularly is crucial to the longevity of your car’s motor, but a lot of places will try to sell you on a complete engine flush for a few extra bucks. A flush involves adding cleaning chemicals to the oil that are designed to break down carbon build up in the engine, then changing the oil and filter to remove the unstuck gunk. The problem is, if the oil is changed regularly, there shouldn’t be much if any, gunk in the system. Unless you often run several thousand miles overdue for your oil changes, run your motor hot or leave it parked for months at a time, there should be no reason to flush the system unless recommended by the manufacturer.

Selling services, you don’t need is the hallmark of our next scammer.

The Upsell

Upselling isn’t a scam, but getting asked to sign off on additional work to your car is far more costly than adding a muffin to your morning coffee order. The truth is unless your car manufacturer explicitly says so, nonsynthetic oil is just fine, and your transmission probably doesn’t need a fluid change, and no, your fuel injectors probably aren’t gummed up. Mechanics will try to sell you on these costly upgrades and added work by telling you the manufacturer recommended product is inferior, but you should trust your car’s manual and maker - they know your vehicle better than anyone. If your mechanic keeps suggesting more expensive options, maybe consider finding a new garage.

Continue reading for even more unnecessary work you could be getting scammed into paying for.

Tune Ups Are A Joke

There was a time when cars had to go in for tune-ups, kind of like how a musician tuned their instrument. The mechanic would reset tensioners, calibrate certain parts and tweak others for maximum performance. The cars of today are finely tuned monsters with sensors and systems to keep them running at peak functionality. Outside of regular maintenance, there isn’t much “tuning” to be done under the hood anymore. Yes, you should have your car inspected when you have it in the shop for oil changes or basic repairs, but the days of taking the ol’ jalopy in for a tune-up are gone.

Broken Axle Boot

If you look under your vehicle, you’ll notice a rubber covering over the CV joint. This boot keeps dirt and grime out of the bearings and joint, but it’s also prime for unnecessary replacement. This is one of the more obscure scams out there, but if your mechanic comes to you once the car’s on the hoist and says you need a new rubber boot or CV cover, ask to take a look. A naturally deteriorated or torn piece will be jagged and dirty. If the cut is clean, both of dirt and rough edges, your mechanic may have got a little antsy about this month’s pay and made a make-work project of your car. If you suspect your mechanic is blowing smoke, photograph, and document the part, report the scam, then have the mechanic replace it on their dime.

Our next scammer will leave you breathless with their behavior.

Dirty Air Filter

This is one of the oldest tricks in the con artist’s handbook. Shifty places will keep a dirty air filter from another vehicle on hand and ready to pass off as yours. Undoubtedly, the one they show you is filthy enough to warrant a finger-wagging, and it’s only twenty bucks to change it. Yeah, that’s an easy twenty for those folks when you agree and drive home with your same moderately used air filter. To avoid this scam, check your air filter before you go. The filter will be easy to access on most vehicles and takes only a moment to see if it’s time to replace it yet or not.

While we’re on the topic of replacing parts, read on to learn how you might not be getting what you pay for.

Counterfeit Parts at New Prices

Just as there are knock-off watches, shoes, tools, and money, the car parts market are rife with counterfeiters and poor third party imitators. This is one of the worst scams going, and it can be nearly impossible to know until your replacement parts fail. Counterfeit parts are cheaper than manufacturer parts, but you’ll end up spending more since they are of inferior quality. Depending on the part, counterfeits can cause far more damage because they either fail catastrophically or are missized and put added stress on the parts around them. If you’re concerned that your mechanic might be pulling some wool over your eyes, ask to see the part that the mechanic will be putting in and look for the manufacturer’s mark to verify it came from the factory.

Dirty Fuel Injectors

This is another one that targets people who just want to do proper maintenance on their vehicle. Like the engine flush, a deep clean of the fuel injectors shouldn’t be necessary unless it’s in the scheduled maintenance of your car. The truth is, there are plenty of additives in most fuels that are designed to help keep your engine clean. If you are concerned about carbon build up on your injectors, run a bottle of fuel injector cleaner through the system - it’s just as useful in most situations.

Generalizing Brand Issues

We joke about Dodges reliably blowing head gaskets and place bets on how long until a Ford rusts out, but your mechanic shouldn’t base his sales pitch on these friendly ribbings. While you should keep common problems with vehicles in mind, you should pay more attention to your own vehicle's performance. With the various sensors and warning systems in cars today, many cars will let you know if there is a problem. For issues your car can’t tell you about on the dash, pay attention to how the vehicle drives, corners, handles bumps and listen for concerning noises. If you worry your mechanic is making mountains of future molehills, seek a second opinion. That’s also sound advice for our next shyster...

Repair Estimate Scams

Having repairs done on your car can be expensive. Some of the most common maintenance can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars. If your bill seems higher than it should, seek a second opinion. These scammers rely on your ignorance of automotive costs, so they try to milk you for extra money by overcharging for parts or labor. Realistically, avoiding this scam is a matter of experience. Anyone who’s had to deal with mechanics enough will know basic price points of various repairs. Again, if your bill seems unreasonably high, get a second opinion and compare notes.

Hostage Takers

These highway bandits prey on the misfortune of others. They run out of the way service stations and wait for broken cars to be towed in. Once the unsuspecting victim has brought their broken vehicle to the garage, the mechanic gives them the bad news: the car needs several thousand dollars in work before it will run again. While this may seem like an everyday trip to the garage, the prices for these repairs skyrocket and the stranded traveler is stuck with a massive bill and no way to leave. These are the worst scammers out there. Stranded travelers become little more than hostages unless they can pay the ransom, err, bill. These are probably the least common scammers out there, but beware, they do exist.