Be Careful, These Are the Worst Ways Mechanics Try to Rip You Off

Mechanics and surgeons have a lot in common. Both operate on complex plumbing and machinery, both are necessary during incredibly stressful times, and both have to deal with some bad stereotypes. Going back to the beginnings of modern comedy, two constants have been doctor and mechanic jokes. Why? Because more often than not, they know something we don’t, and they can charge an arm and a leg to fix a problem.

That’s why one of the most important things to have in either profession is trust. People need to be able to trust that these specialists are giving them the news straight, telling them their best course to solving the problem, and working in a way that won’t leave them penniless.

So seeing as how the medical profession isn’t our forte, we’ve decided to focus on some of the worst things some mechanics do to bring down their entire field. Luckily, increasingly complex cars and a number of consumer advocacy groups are hunting crooked repair shops to extinction. But they’re still out there. Here are some of the shadiest things a mechanic can pull on you. 

1. The phantom leak


Cars like this old Jaguar tend to leak oil. | Jaguar

This is an old trick, and it’s incredibly sleazy. Some of the more crooked mechanics will carefully plant some antifreeze or oil in your engine compartment or under your car. Then, there’s usually a proposal to find the phantom leak, which can be costly and obviously futile. If a mechanic finds something wrong with your car, it’s well within your rights to ask to see the problem yourself. If they won’t show you the problem, take your car and find a new mechanic.

Next: It might be a threat, but it’s an empty one. 

2. The lockdown

car repair

This mechanic needs to return this car as soon as he’s paid. | Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a tactic so old that it’s become a parody of crooked mechanics everywhere. You bring your car in for new tires or an oil change, and after a few minutes the mechanic comes out and says, “Bad news. You’re going to need all new X, Y, and Z. Legally, I can’t even let you drive it out of here.”

Contrary to his stern recommendations, mechanics aren’t allowed to hold your car hostage. In New York, a shop must surrender your keys as soon as you pay for the work it performed. If it doesn’t, you’re free to get the law involved. If your car is unsafe, get it fixed. But no one is legally allowed to keep your keys.

Next: Always ask for specifics. 

3. Generalizing instead of giving specifics

Haynes manual headquarters

Don’t get talked into unnecessary repairs. | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Some crooked mechanics will recommend doing work without giving you any specifics. “Oh yeah,” they might say. “These [insert your car here] all need a top engine rebuild at about this mileage. We should take care of it right away.” In situations like this, the old adage rings true: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Barring a recall or desperately needed preventative maintenance, you should never get talked into needless repairs.

Next: Don’t trust a mechanic with a communication problem. 

4. The bait and switch

Mechanic repairing a car

Mechanics should stay close to their initial estimate. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

An estimate might be just that, but it’s also supposed to be accurate. If you were quoted a price by your mechanic and the price triples without your knowledge, you could be getting scammed. If your mechanic finds more problems than he expected on your car, it’s on him to let you know before he does any additional work.

Next: This is almost always a rip-off. 

5. Dirty filters

air filters

Paying someone to replace your air filters is almost always a rip-off. | Micah Wright/The Cheat Sheet

This is one of the most common tricks in the book. You pull up to a quick oil change place, and workers pull out your air filters to show you. Inevitably, they’re black and full of grime. This is because of one of two things: Either your car’s engine and cabin air filters are genuinely dirty, or the mechanic keeps a generic dirty filter in his toolbox and uses it to trick you.

Always turn down new filters. Even reputable garages sometimes charge double for new ones. And even if you’re a complete novice, you can change these out yourself in a few minutes with nothing more than a screwdriver.

Next: Personal preference goes a long way. 

6. Upselling

Royal Purple

Royal Purple is great motor oil. But if you don’t want to upgrade and use it in your car, you really don’t have to. | Royal Purple

Not all maintenance items are created equal. There are definite pricing tiers to things, such as oil. But here’s the dirty little secret: Most oils are about 95% equal. If you’ve been using a specific type or brand of oil, you don’t need to change because something more expensive comes along. Stick with what you like. Don’t fall for the sales pitch. As long as it’s rated for your car, it should be OK.

Next: Ask and ye shall receive — no exceptions. 

7. Unauthorized repairs

mechanic at work

A mechanic shouldn’t work on your exhaust if you just want them to do your brakes. | Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

Say you dropped your car off for new brake pads. When you return to pick it up, you’re presented with a massive bill for new rotors, calipers, and brake lines because the mechanic decided everything must go. A good mechanic will call you as soon as they find more trouble. Even then, if you don’t want them to do the work, it’s well within your rights to tell them no.

Next: Stick to a schedule. 

8. Unnecessary maintenance

Mechanic repairing a car

Hopefully this mechanic is doing the job he’s being paid to do. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Like unauthorized repairs, some mechanics will stoop low enough to charge for extra work. It’s one thing if you drop your car off and say “fix everything.” But it’s something else for your mechanic to take it upon himself and then bill you for the privilege. We’re all for additional repairs on the house (trust us, it happens sometimes), but if you receive a bill for anything you didn’t consent to, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Next: Always ask for the genuine article. 

9. Cheap parts


Some shops will even cheap out on new wheels. | Enkei

Like anything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do a project. If something goes awry on your car, you expect your mechanic to use a part that’s as good or better than the one that came on your car from the factory. But some shady mechanics will go for the cheapest available part in order to pocket a few extra bucks. Make sure your mechanic uses the right parts, all the time, every time. Otherwise, you might have a recurring problem on your hands.

Next: Truly, this is the lowest of the low. 

10. Vandalism

fixing flat tire

Hopefully this flat happened naturally. | Micah Wright/The Cheat Sheet

The lowliest crooked mechanics might even resort to damaging your car to make some extra cash. Some of the worst horror stories over the years involve discreetly punctured tires, split hoses, and shredded belts. There isn’t much you can do if your car is inoperable short of calling the police. So if you’ve heard shady things about the shop you’re pulling into, just go someplace else.

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