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Common Auto Repair Scams

Hello Car Talk Community!

I’m doing a little research for Tom and Ray for an upcoming feature on the Car Talk web site. We’re going to talk about the common scams perpetrated by less-reputable repair shops.

We need your help. Tell us what car repair scams you’ve experienced (or managed to avoid) right here. Thanks!


Connie Brichford

Junior Web Lackey

I once witnessed someone try to sell a radiator flush to a lady with an old VW Beetle. Luckily she called the quicky-lube tech out on it right away.

A quick oil change place by our house tried to sell my dad a $60 synthetic oil change, for a '02 VW Jetta.

Quick-lube place told me I needed my coolant changed, and showed me the tester to prove it (plastic thing with different colored floating balls). Since I’d just had the coolant changed 3 weeks ago at the dealership, I went back to them and complained. Naturally my coolant was fine, so the lube place must have had a rigged tester. I’ve also had a (different) quick lube place tell me I needed to change my engine air cleaner even though I had just changed it myself. Needless to say I don’t go to those places any more.

I bought a used Saturn from a Saturn dealership back in 2004. I took it in for an oil change and regular maintenance (no warranty left) and was called back with the horrific news that my radiator needed to be replaced immediately. Strange, since it was in for a tune up and not radiator issues, and had shown no signs of overheating or being low on coolant.

I asked the service rep what exactly was wrong with the radiator and was told there was a hole in it, and that it was so bad that I probably couldn’t even drive it off the lot. They needed to fix it right away or it would “blow up”.

I’d had to replace radiators in cars before, and since this car had shown no signs of any radiator issues I asked them to provide me with a written estimate, and that I would risk the car “blowing up” and drive it off and seek a second opinion.

When I got to the dealership to pick up the car there was no written estimate, though the tech did try to persuade me that it was an “unsafe vehicle” given the condition of the radiator and that I needed to replace it immediately. I was repeatedly warned that if I drove the vehicle off the lot it would surely “blow up” and I would risk even more repairs. I held firm that I wanted a written estimate and that I was willing to take the great risk of driving the car home.

After 10 minutes of arguing I finally drove the car off the lot. Owned it another three years with no radiator problems at all. Amazing! Needless to say that since they refused to give me a written estimate of the repairs needed I couldn’t nail them for trying to rip me off, but I did make sure to tell all my friends/family about them. Never took my car there again.

Had some front end work done by a TIRE SHOP (mistake) and the guy tried to sell me on a brake job; said I badly needed rotors as well, as they had “lines on them”. I told him the brakes were done 4 months back, including NEW rotors, and offerd to pick up the phone and have him talk to the mechanic who did it.

Midas tried to sell me on new front springs, stating that they had “bottomed”, since the rubber pads had made contact with suspension. This is what they are supposed to do when you hit a bad bump. I had hit many since I worked on construction at that time. The front springs lasted many more years, and we never replaced them.

Sears Automotive had my car in for a grease job (special) and juggled the front suspension to show “play” and said I needed their heavy duty front ball joints. I let a mechanic friend look at it and he said, yes, I would need ball joints, in about 60,000 miles!

You can delete actual business names, of course.

I needed new tires for my car, and asked my dad to call and price them for me. When I went in (without my dad), the guy at the desk quoted me a price for $40 more per tire than what he had told my dad. When I asked him about it, he said “Oh, you mean THOSE tires…” Then after waiting a couple of hours, they told me my car was ready to go. I went out to the car and saw that they hadn’t even changed the tires! I definitely did NOT go back to that place!

Not common, but about 2 years ago, I took my 2006 VW Jetta to the VW dealership in Freehold, NJ. A distinct “thump” was coming through the steering column whenever I turned the wheel more than 10 degrees. I knew that meant a new steering rack (and probably at least $1K–damn NYC potholes!) Anyway, the mechanic tried to convince me that the noise was in fact coming from the rear struts and kept pushing a brand-new suspension system on me. Got it fixed properly at the Edison, NJ dealership.

For future reference, try for your tires & have them shipped to the mechanic. Best prices on tires I’ve ever come across, even including their very reasonable shipping rates.

We took our 2000 Chevy Tahoe in for a routine annual PA inspection and the shop told us that all four rotors were bad and needed to be replaced along with the serpentine belt, the battery and the front brake pads. We felt that the chances of all four rotors dying at once was unusual, so we took it to another shop for their opinion. Turned out that the rotors were worn but nothing that wouldn’t pass inspection and didn’t have to be replaced right away. The brake pads were fine along with the battery and belt. Unbelievable!!! I was so glad that I didn’t just jump into the repairs at the first place.

OK so this probably isn’t than common, but one July 4th we were driving to D.C. from Savannah. I lost a gear on my Chevette at the South of the Border exit. You know that real touristy place with all the billboards - Chili today, hot tamale! Anyway, pulled into one of their stations and they said I needed a new clutch. It would only take four days to get the parts and we could stay at one of their fabulous motels. Hell no! I managed to get the Chevette in fourth gear and we hauled. We made it to Fayetteville before the rest of the gears fell out, well something fell out, we heard a clunk. Got towed into town my a man named Maynard, spent one night at the Horne’s Moter Lodge, which had a red phone in the bathroom - never figured that one out and the next day, thanks to a great little service station, we were back on our way to D.C. But my boyfriend and I broke up after that trip, he was so ashamed that we were sitting in the lobby of Horne’s with big paper grocery bags of fresh produce, which we were taking to our D.C. friends, that he sat outside on the curb.

In the “more common auto repair” department, I once went to a quick lube place in Marlton, NJ for an oil change. A technician soon came out to tell me that a brake light was out (which was true–I had planned to pick up a replacement & change it later) and he could “professionally install” it for $25. He also warned that I was low on wiper blade lubrication oil. I asked if he meant wiper fluid and he said no, that it was a common mistake for people to think that wiper blades don’t need lubrication and that if I didn’t have the service performed (for $35), I could be stuck in a rainstorm w/non-working wipers.

I would have pulled the car out then & there but they had already drained the oil. I did stand over them to make certain they put in the synthetic I asked for instead of regular & then charging me the higher price. I’ve had to learn a LOT about cars over the years in order not to be scammed by unscrupulous mechanics. From my experience, they see a woman coming and dollar signs light up in front of their eyes.

I have a couple…

Went to a tire place for a special on a wheel alignment. I was told by the tech that I needed new ball joints…I said…“Show me”. He couldn’t…Some 150k miles later when I sold the vehicle…the ball joints were still fine.

Wife went to have their tires rotated and the tech tried to sell her new shocks. The shocks were only 9 months old and were in PERFECT condition. That was the last time I we ever bought tires there.

Had to get a exhaust gasket replaced and the only place that had the part was the dealer. So I decided to let them do it…Well after 15 minutes they came back with a list of $1500 worth of repairs…AND NOT ONE OF THEM WAS NEEDED…One was a timing belt…I asked them how they determined that I needed a new timing belt?? Their answer was that there was no record of me ever having my vehicle serviced there and since I had over 100k miles on the truck the timing belt MUST be bad…They also said I had a cam and crank seal leaks…Which I asked how they determined that…Said that there was oil on a hose next to the bottom of the timing belt cover (which there was…I had spilled a little when I did my oil change a couple days before)…So I asked them did they pull the timing belt cover?? Their answer was No…Then how do you know the oil is coming from the seals??? They couldn’t answer…

Ball-joints and brakes are very common for scams. Mainly because if they are bad and they do fail they could get into an accident…They basically frighten the unsuspecting client into paying for service they don’t need.

Back in the days before I-95, a favorite scam perpetrated by toothless “good-old boys” in rural areas of Georgia was to wait until the Yankee driver and passengers went to the men’s room/ladies’ room, and then squirt oil on the shock absorbers.

When the customer(s) returned to their car, Helpful Gomer would point toward some oil drips on the ground and explain that he was so concerned that he had peeked underneath the car and found that (pick one) two or four of the car’s shock absorbers were leaking. “Too danged dangerous to drive”, he would advise–in between spits of tobacco juice. Some drivers were inevitably snared this way into buying overpriced and unnecessary shock absorbers.

Another scam perpetrated at those same places could even be done while the car owner sat in the car. While checking the oil, Gomer or Goober would make one of more quick cuts in the fan belt with a small blade that he concealed in his palm. A skilled scammer could probably sell quite a few overpriced and unnecessary fan belts each day with this tactic.

I sometimes buy from Tire Rack, but a couple of cautions:
One, thay don’t carry all brands, i.e. Toyo.
Two, on inexpensive tires the shipping will more than offset any savings.
three, you are on your own for labor and shipping charges with a warranty issue. I had an issue with a Continental tire and had to pay $50 to ship it back to Tire Rack, an pay again to have the new one mounted. had I bought the original locally I would have been much better off.
Often local shops will offer free winter change-overs, free rotation, free mounting an balancing, which all-told can beat Tire Racks price savings.

When I took my car in for A/C recharging, the sales manager told me I needed transmission service. I’ve played this game before.

I asked him what the service involved, and he told me they would change the automatic transmission fluid. I then asked about the filter. I forget what he mumbled in reply because I had my next question all ready to go. “What about the clutch?”

Yes, he never even noticed my car had manual transmission.

I did not press the game any further. I had my A/C recharged and went on my way.

Just as well you broke up. I travel a lot, and I see people with brought food in even 5 star hotel lobbies. They just don’t take it into the RESTAURANT! In the past, hotels used to try to shame you into buying everything on their premises. When my wife and I travel we always shop in local specialty stores for food items unique to the area.

I see a future for your boyfriend driving a BMW and drinking expensive, mediocre Chardonnay because everyone else is drinking the same thing.

If it has a turbo, then it probably isn’t a scam. Places near me charge $64.99 for a synthetic oil change meeting VW’s 502.00 oil requirements.

Seems that tires are the big thing to hit people up for cash. I had a flat tire once, and the employee at the tire place who was helping me told me right away I needed a new tire. Since they didn’t have the correct size tire, he said he would give me a larger one. I told him no, but he insisted. I had gone there several times, and the owner knew me, so I went to talk to him. He pushed his employee to the side, and fixed my tire. That was four years ago, and now my tires are finally so worn that I need new ones. Never had a problem with this particular tire.

Regarding the timing belt: To be fair, there’s really no reliable way to show when it’s ready to go. Depending on what type of car you have, you really should change it between 60-90K. Anytime after that, you’re playing a game of Russian Roulette with your engine. If the belt goes while you’re stopped at a light, you’ll probably get off easy with a simple replacement. If it goes while you’re driving, you’re probably looking at a whole new engine, since the pistons will slam down & bend. Trust me, I’ve had both happen–once on a 1995 Chevy Cavalier w/105K miles (my mechanic still keeps the bent piston rod to show people what could happen) and once on a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am w/120K miles (luckily, no engine damage).