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Watch Out for These 13 Common Car Repair Scams

Updated: Aug. 23, 2023

Unless you're a car expert or best friends with a mechanic, you might be tricked into paying for services you don’t actually need. Here’s what you need to know.

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Don’t be fooled

“Auto repairs are like a doctor’s diagnosis—a second opinion is something that should always be sought out,” wisely notes Ray Shefska of Your Auto Advocate. That’s because if you don’t know your way around under the hood, it’s incredibly easy to get taken for a ride. Sure, sometimes your car needs work and you might not have known there was a problem without your trusty and trustworthy mechanic. But sometimes, a simple trip to get an oil change or an annual inspection will result in a massive repair bill—all for services your car doesn’t actually need. Be aware of these common car-repair scams so that you’re prepared the next time you head to the shop.

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Cabin filter replacement

Sure, cabin filters are necessary, but they’re not usually among the most urgent repairs your car needs, notes automotive educator Chaya M. Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme. Translation: Don’t let a mechanic try to talk you into a “critical” change because a slightly dusty cabin filter has been pulled from your vehicle. “While important to change regularly, it’s not immediately detrimental to the proper functioning of your vehicle,” says Milchtein. “Simply put, if you are deciding between a safety item and a cabin filter, or even an oil change and your cabin filter, take care of the cabin filter last.” Here are the other car repairs you’ve probably wasted money on at some point.

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New tires

Believe it or not, not all flat tires need to be replaced. “As long as the puncture is not on the side wall, the tire should be able to be repaired,” explains Lauren Fix, aka the Car Coach. Before blindly agreeing to an expensive new tire (or two), she suggests, “ask your service advisor to show you the damage to your tire and have them explain completely why a new tire is being recommended versus a repair.” If you do need a replacement, check out these 12 tires car experts buy for their own cars.

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Engine flushes

Engine flushes sound necessary on paper. “They are designed to break down oil sludge in your engine and also prevent oil sludge from forming,” says Fix. “But utilizing engine oil cleaner and conditioner is a proactive approach to avoid engine oil sludge from forming.” So, a flush might not technically be needed—or it might not be needed at all and is simply a ploy to get you to fork over extra cash. To avoid being scammed, Fix says you should make an auto-repair facility prove that you need a flush due to oil sludge. How? By literally having them show you the sludge. “Normally, the sludge can be found on the bottom of your oil cap on the engine,” says Fix. While we’re on the subject, here’s why you shouldn’t ignore your car’s Check Engine light.

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New brakes

Before you agree to replace your brakes, know that this is one of the most common upsells, says Zach Shefska, CEO of Your Auto Advocate. Why brakes? It’s simple, he says: “No one wants to be driving along in a vehicle that has bad brakes!” The fear is used to sell you a product you may not actually need. “If you trust your mechanic, don’t question replacing the brake pads,” says Shefska. But if you’re not on friendly terms with the mechanic or this is your first time using a particular repair shop, don’t be too surprised when they suggest you need new brake pads. Shefska and his dad, who founded the company with him, say this is the most frequently targeted upsell, because most customers will simply say, “OK.” What else do you need to know? These 13 ways you’re shortening the life of your car.

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Double charges

Charging consumers for multiple jobs being done at the same time is a common scam that could cost you extra money when getting your vehicle serviced. For example, says Peter Mann from SC Vehicle Hire, car mechanics typically replace spark plugs and coils at the same time because you need to take out the coils to remove the spark plugs. However, unscrupulous mechanics may double-charge you for the number of hours to do this work. To avoid being overcharged, read up about your car and how it works, and ask your mechanic questions before and after getting service. Knowing more about your vehicle is also important so you don’t accidentally waste money on your car.

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Broken axle boots

Scam alert! There is a difference between a legitimate/natural boot tear versus a cut rubber boot. “Axle boots that have failed will sling out the grease that they are designed to hold in,” says Fix. “Have the service advisor show you the axle boot and look for grease patterns that form on surrounding components.” If you don’t see them, don’t agree to this service.

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Fluid flushes

A good deal of the unnecessary upselling that happens in repair shops involves transmission, coolant, and power steering fluid flushes, says Audi technician Oscar Verduga. “Most vehicles come with transmission fluid that’s rated for the lifetime of the vehicle,” he says, “and if you have a newer vehicle, it might have electric power steering that doesn’t have any fluid in it.” This means that the fluid flushes you’re being told you need may very well be unnecessary. “The best thing to do is read your owner’s manual because it has all the maintenance recommendations on it and the time/mileage intervals for that service,” Verduga adds.

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Complimentary car wash

There’s no harm in saying yes to the free car wash, right? Wrong, says James Ford of Autobead. Before agreeing to this service, check the cleaning area. “Customers have contacted our accredited professionals to fix damage caused by untrained car-cleaning staff at dealerships, who failed to refresh shampoo buckets to remove excess grit, used wash mitts rather than sponges (that keeps grit on the car’s surface), and rinse off dirt, dust, or metal particles from the surface before using a wash mitt,” he explains. Any of these mistakes may cause your car to be returned with scratches and swirl marks, and then you could be talked into repairing the damage they caused during your freebie. Here’s more about why you may never want to go to another car wash again.

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Inflated quotes

Beware of bogus repair-cost quotes when you drop your vehicle off for service. Michael Hammelburger, CEO of the Bottom Line Group, says that repair shops will often give a car owner an initial repair quote that’s on the cheap side, which gets the consumer to green light the service. The problem, according to Hammelburger, is that “when they come to pick up their car, they get a surprise—a final bill that’s higher by $1,000 (or more!) compared to the quoted cost.” Make sure your quote is firm before leaving your car in their hands. FYI, these are the car brands that cost the least to repair.

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Overcharging for parts

This is an extremely common one, as most people don’t have any idea how much parts cost and where to order them, says Michael Lowe, CEO of Car Passionate. “Many mechanics put pressure on customers by stating that they will buy and replace these parts themselves and add it to the bill at the end,” he says. “[But] buying them yourself might be a more convenient and definitely cheaper option.” He recommends avoiding this scam by doing your own research about the parts that need replacing, even if it means waiting an extra day to get your car fixed.

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Not actually replacing parts

Let’s say you went ahead and agreed to let the mechanic buy and replace the parts. You could be in for an added surprise: “You may find that the parts weren’t even replaced in the first place, because in truth, they didn’t need to be,” says Lowe. Alternatively, a mechanic may replace the parts, which are expensive when bought new, with used or aftermarket parts that are also damaged. As a result, you may end up returning to the shop a week later with the same issue—and more repair bills. Avoid this by servicing your vehicle at a certified mechanic with a good reputation. Check out these 30 things your car mechanic won’t tell you.

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Timing belts

Even if you know nothing about cars, you’ve likely heard the term timing belt. This part should be changed every 50,000 to 60,000 miles or every five to six years, not more often than that, says Lowe. So, if your mechanic suggests a new timing belt, ask questions about why it is needed ahead of schedule. This belt wears out over time, and if not fixed, it can damage your car’s engine and related parts, ultimately creating more problems. Still, don’t be scammed into thinking you need frequent replacements because you don’t.

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Transmission service

Of course, we all want to keep our transmissions humming along. The good news is that unless there’s a visible problem, yours is probably fine. “The majority of modern vehicles already have transmission fluids that will easily last 100,000 miles or more,” says ASE-certified master technician Steven Greenspan, an instructor and education manager at Universal Technical Institute in Lisle, Illinois. “Manufacturers also have eliminated dipsticks and drain plugs due to the fact modern transmissions are designed to not be serviced.” What does that mean for you? “The only time you need to have your transmission checked is if there is a leak or the transmission is not operating properly.” Next, find out the 15 things you’re doing to your car that mechanics wouldn’t.