11/08/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST

Oil-change shop caught scamming customers: Marketplace investigation

An Ontario chain of quick oil-change shops is up-selling customers with unnecessary work and not performing services that customers have paid for, a CBC Marketplace investigation has found.

Economy Lube has 12 shops across southwestern Ontario. After speaking with former employees, Marketplace tested Economy Lube’s service, with cars equipped with hidden cameras.

The investigation uncovered a variety of problematic business practices, including aggressive upselling of services that cost hundreds of dollars and were not needed and work that was charged for but not completed.

“Generally speaking, these places deal with volume, not necessarily a repeat customer,” mechanic Mark Sach-Anderson told Marketplace co-host Tom Harrington. “Most people don’t know about their cars,” said Sach-Anderson, who’s been in the industry for more than 20 years.

“All they can do is take somebody’s word for it. And if [shops] can show them a printout or something and it says, ‘Hey, this needs doing,’ who are they to dispute it?”

The full report, Greasy Business, airs tonight at 8pm (8:30pm NT) on CBC Television.

Hidden camera investigation

​Equipped with hidden cameras, Marketplace sent in three people with test cars for a basic oil change to document the service at Economy Lube. All three cars had been extensively examined by Sach-Anderson, who checked and, where necessary, replaced all other fluids to ensure that the cars only needed an oil change.

Economy Lube advertises its oil change as taking 10 minutes and costing $20. Despite this low cost, all three testers were told that additional services were needed, including servicing the transmission system, a coolant flush, a flush of the brake fluid system and a flush of the power steering fluid. The costs of the recommended but unnecessary services ranged from $180 to $250.

In one case, Economy Lube salespeople recommended replacing fluid that had just been changed, suggesting that the fluid smelled like it was burning. In some cases, the work was done improperly.

Services not performed may be fraud

​The Marketplace investigation also found that Economy Lube charged customers for some services but failed to perform the work.

Mark Simchison, former fraud chief with the Hamilton police, said that this discovery is troubling.

“If they are … receiving money for services that they did not perform, that you paid for, in all honesty, that’s fraud,” says Simchison.

There is little recourse for consumers who fear they might have been ripped off, he says,  as it would be difficult for most people to prove that fraud had taken place.

“It’s a heads-up for consumers,” Simchison says. “Be wary of who you deal with.”

Marketplace contacted Economy Lube owner Stephen Moxey who denied that the shop failed to perform the services paid for, and said that any employee not doing work would be fired immediately.

Lack of mandatory training

Quick change oil and lube shops are a more than $9 billion US industry in North America, with a number of competing chains offering similar services. Sach-Anderson says that the emphasis in some shops is on sales, not proper diagnosis of problems.

“The reality is, they’re not technicians and they are not mechanics,” he says. “A mechanic’s license is five years of on-the-job training and a minimum of three years of in-school training. These guys are straight out of high school, and when they’ve walked into these places, might not have known how to open a hood.”

Sach-Anderson says more regulation is needed to protect consumers. Current regulations do not require that staff at oil change shops be licensed mechanics, and consumers may not be aware that salespeople are making recommendations about what services are necessary.

If you’re unsure about the services being offered, Sach-Anderson says, make sure that any diagnosis is coming from a licensed mechanic who you trust. And knowing how often your car needs key services is also important.