A woman is shown making a disappointed face with a mechanic in the background counting money after being scammed.

How to Spot and Avoid Common Car Repair Scams

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a woman goes to a car service center because she wants an oil change; the mechanic quotes her a fair price for it, but during the oil change he finds all kinds of other problems and things that need major repairs. In the end, she pays double or more than what she expected and drives off, uncertain of what was actually done and generally feeling like she was ripped off. While not every service center out there is looking to scam you, the reality is that it does happen – much too often.

The good news, however, is that it doesn’t have to happen; for one thing, there are plenty of decent and reputable service centers and dealerships out there that treat their customers fairly. Of course, the problem is that finding those places isn’t always easy, and it takes some work––even just knowing whether you actually need repairs done on your vehicle takes some work. It’s not as bad as it seems, and a little bit of research and effort ahead of time can save you some money. Even better, once you find a good shop that you know is fair with you and treats you well, you’ll be set for a while when you need repairs.

Common Car Repair Scams

Double Charges

Although a double charge might sound like it would be easy to watch for, disreputable service centers are pretty good at hiding it. They’ll do a job where they can do two things at once and then charge you for twice the hours of labor for it. For example, it might take them two hours to replace your spark plugs and the coils while they’re at it. But they charge you two hours of labor for replacing the plugs and two hours of labor for replacing the coils, for four hours total, even though it was really two hours of work.

Unnecessary Replacements

One of the easiest scams for a repair shop to run is to convince you that they need to replace parts that are just fine. The cabin air filter is the most common part that they’ll do this on since it’s relatively cheap and such a minor thing that a lot of people will just agree to it. Some shops won’t stop at the air filter, however, and can come up with all sorts of replacements that “need” to be made at a cost that adds up.

A mechanic is shown looking into an engine bay with a work light.

Unnecessary Repairs

Along with suggesting unnecessary parts that need to be replaced, some shops will suggest all sorts of additional services and repairs that your vehicle does not need. This can include a lot of different things, from fluid flushes and replacements to brake service and transmission. You’ll often find this hand-in-hand with unnecessary parts, and when they are used together, you can end up paying a lot of money for stuff that doesn’t need to be done.

Quote Inflation

While some people could argue that some of these things aren’t “scams,” this one pretty clearly is. It’s essentially a “bait and switch,” where a service center will quote you a price for service, then charge you something much higher once the work is done. Sometimes they’ll run this scam by coming up with all sorts of unnecessary stuff to do, but other times the price for labor or parts mysteriously increases. This is often done through a verbal quote.

Overcharging for Parts

Charging you excessively high prices for parts when doing service is a great way for a shop to make some extra money. In some cases, a shop will get a discount on parts and charge you a fair price, still making a profit on it. Other times, however, they’ll charge you an exorbitant fee for the part, or even worse, charge you for original manufacturer part pricing, but use cheap, aftermarket parts of lower quality when doing the repairs.

Not Replacing Parts

Perhaps the clearest scam that a service center can run is charging you for work they don’t actually do on your vehicle. You might be charged for new brake pads, for example, but they never actually place new ones on your vehicle. Similarly, some disreputable service stations will charge for an oil change and not actually change the oil in your car. They might instead put used parts onto your vehicle, which ensures you’ll need service again, and they’re banking on you coming back to them so they can charge you again.

How to Save Money and Get Good Work

Do Some Research

Honestly, the single best way to avoid getting scammed or ripped off with service for your car is by doing some research of your own. The more you know about your vehicle, the better equipped you’ll be to spot someone trying to scam you. Read your owner’s manual, do some research online, and learn about the different parts and service your vehicle needs. If you know you have two or three more years before you need a new timing belt, you’ll know to question it when a mechanic tries to sell you on replacing it. You should also look for information and reviews of any shop you’re interested in, check with your local Better Business Bureau for complaints, and ask your family and friends what shop they trust.

A mechanic with a clipboard is making a written estimate.

Get a Written Estimate

Some states require that any service expected to be more than $100 has to first include a quote in writing for the customer. Whether your state requires this or not, get a quote for parts and labor in writing from any service center before you have work done. A verbal quote is essentially worthless and can be denied at any time––one in writing can be used in a potential lawsuit, though you’ll probably never need that. You should also insist that any changes of 10% or more need to be discussed with and approved by you before additional work is done.

Get a Second Opinion

If you get a particularly high quote from a service center, or they try to tell you that you need work done that you’re not sure about, then take your vehicle somewhere else for a second opinion (or third, or fourth). There’s nothing wrong with getting a quote from multiple sources or having another mechanic verify what someone else has told you. Not only can this save you money, but it can help you determine which shops are reputable and which aren’t.

Test a Shop before a Serious Problem

The last thing you want to do is try out a new service shop when something really serious is going on, like major engine trouble. If you’re in a tight spot, then they have all the power. When you’re looking to try out a new shop, go there with a minor issue, like an oil change, and see how it goes. If they try to upsell you on stuff you don’t need or discover new problems that you know don’t exist, then you can get out of there and find somewhere else.

Check for Warranty Coverage

If you have a new vehicle, then you should have a manufacturer warranty on a lot of different parts and services. Be sure to go to a certified service center that will honor your warranty coverage in order to pay less and keep your warranty intact. Dealerships can be great for this, though quality can vary from one to another, just like anywhere else.

Be Well Informed

Doing research is great, but it’s just as important that whomever you’re dealing with at a repair center knows that you’re well informed. If you’ve found that the work you need should cost about $400 in your area, for example, then when you call and talk to someone, mention that you’ve seen similar work costs about $400. Research has shown that mechanics are more likely to give a fair and honest quote to someone who seems well informed and who knows what they are talking about. Otherwise, it’s common to get a higher quote simply because they assume you don’t know any better and they’re looking to make as much money as possible.