Last Updated on December 15, 2020
With the exception of electric vehicles, all cars will need many routine oil changes throughout their lifetime. For many people, the most convenient way to accomplish this is to take the car to a shop and have it changed for them.
Unfortunately, putting the car in someone else’s hands doesn’t free the user of all maintenance responsibility. While we hope it would never happen to us, the fact is that there are those at some quick lube oil change shops and even dealerships that have no problem taking advantage of unsuspecting customers.
Here are four common oil change scams that car owners may encounter, and what they can do to avoid the situation.
#1 – “Come back in 3,000 miles!”
This is perhaps the most common and subtle sales tactic used by quick lube shops. Modern full synthetic oils can run anywhere from 6-10,000 miles, some even lasting up to 15,000 miles depending on the vehicle, oil formula, and driving conditions. Even many conventional oils can last you 5,000 miles or more under normal driving conditions.
Every quick lube shop I’ve been to gives you a sticker and tells you to come back in after 3,000 miles. Unless you’re driving under extreme operating conditions or your owner’s manual specifically mentions a 3k mile interval, this is usually too frequent. The actual condition of the oil is more important than an arbitrary mileage number.
See Also: Conventional vs Synthetic Engine Oils
Always consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual to find the manufacturer recommended oil change interval and use that as a rough guideline. A quick lube shop is not going to know or care what the recommended interval is; they make money each time you come in.
#2 – The Upsell
When you go in for an oil change, most shops will also do a quick inspection of the vehicle. They’ll check everything from the headlights and turn signals to the air filter and miscellaneous vehicle fluids such as transmission fluid and brake fluid.
While this can be very helpful to reveal a burnt out bulb or a pesky leak that went unnoticed, some shops will try to convince you to let them perform maintenance far sooner than is necessary. The best way to prevent this is to keep an accurate logbook of maintenance performed on each of your vehicles, and know when the manufacturer recommends performing each task.
Oil changes are often loss leaders at a quick lube shop whether it be Jiffy Lube, Firestone, Express Oil, or an independent shop. They are designed to get a customer in the door and this business model requires the shop to convince a customer they require additional maintenance.
The profit margin on an oil change is very thin, if it exists at all. However, other maintenance tasks rake in substantially more profit, which is bad news for the consumer.
In most instances, you can replace your own air filter in about 5 minutes, but a shop might charge you $20 in labor to perform this task.
Radiator and transmission flushes are some of the worst offenders. You can buy a 50/50 mix of coolant at the price of a couple lattes and swap out the old stuff in about an hour after watching a Youtube how-to, but many shops charge upwards of $150 to perform this service.
The more you educate yourself on what maintenance you can (or can’t) do, the easier time you’ll have of spotting when a shop is trying to pull a fast one on you. Beginners would be surprised just how easy basic car maintenance or repair is. Investing in a repair manual is one of the best things you can do.
#3 – Treating You in a Condescending Manner
If a shop starts talking to you like you’re stupid, walk away. A good shop understands that not everyone is mechanically inclined or even interested in cars and will meet customers wherever they’re at.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t understand what the technician said, it is better to ask than to blindly agree to whatever they recommend.
If you’ve politely asked why a job is necessary and they stiffen up or respond defensively, that could be a sign they are trying to take advantage of your lack of knowledge. There are plenty of other places to get your oil changed so don’t hesitate taking your business elsewhere.
When in doubt, find a car guy or girl whom you trust and ask them to go along with you, or write down the task with the technician’s explanation and bring it to your trusted friend for later.
#4 – Not Doing the Work
We all like to believe this one is rare, but unfortunately it does happen. When you go to have your oil changed, chances are you’re not in the bay watching the technician do the work.
Most shops do have integrity and actually do the work they bill you for, but to prevent this from happening, always check the dipstick to verify the oil looks new and the proper oil level has been added before driving off.
It’s much easier to address an issue now than down the road when you need a new engine because the shop cut corners.
In addition, check under your car for a leak when you get home. Amazingly, there have been many instances of quick lube shops under-tightening the oil drain plug or over-tightening and actually stripping the threads in the oil pan hole.
Not everyone is able to work on their own vehicle, and that’s OK. There are plenty of reputable shops that do great work and will keep your vehicle in tip top condition.
There is nothing to fear when taking your car to a shop, even if it’s a new location you’ve never been to. Being aware of these few pitfalls will go a long way in keeping shops honest and valuable dollars in your pocket.