Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Oily Change-Up Reeks of Bad Business

Knowing that his wife’s car was due for an oil change, a reader just outside Boston saw that the local oil-change franchise near them offered oil changes for around 20 bucks.

A no-brainer, he figured. So, my reader tells me, his wife drove to the center for the service. But when presented with the bill, she saw the total charges came to $37.17, well above the $20 the oil change supposedly cost.

She inquired about the excess charges and was told that her “cabin air filter” had to be replaced. Not having a clue what a cabin air filter was, she paid the bill and returned home.

Her husband was equally baffled about what a cabin air filter was, but what bothered him more was that the oil change franchise had decided to replace the part without consulting with his wife first.

“We came in for one thing and they charged us for more than we wanted,” he told me.

Nonplussed, my reader decided to e-mail the oil-change center’s manager to explain the situation and ask for a refund.

“The issue that was encountered in your vehicle is a common one,” the manager e-mailed back. “If you do not want this service to be done, we ask you to please let us know ahead of time.” For their inconvenience, the manager wrote, he would be willing to give the husband and wife $10 off on their next service at the center.

“Your answer is unacceptable,” my reader e-mailed back. “You say that if I don’t want this service to be done, to please let you know ahead of time. I have to ask: If I did not know it was to be performed (as you did the service without my permission) how could I have asked you not to do it?” Again, he asked for a refund for the service he did not request.

Neither the manager nor my reader would budge. My reader ultimately asked that the entire $37.17 he spent be refunded to his credit card.

Was it enough that the manager offered my reader $10 off of his next visit? By trying to even things out financially on a next appointment, did that signal that the manager was trying to make things right?

Not a chance.

The right thing would have been for the service center to check with my reader’s wife before performing additional maintenance on her car. Adding additional services and costs to the bill without the customer’s permission suggests a bait-and-switch to get customers to spend more than they intend. It’s dishonest and, in the long run, bad customer service. Because they did the additional work without approval, my reader has every reason to expect that the extra amount spent will be credited to him. He should, however, expect to pay for the $20 oil change he requested.

Offering the $10 off on the next appointment forces my reader to spend more money to get back the money that he’s rightfully due. The right thing for the oil service center to do is refund the extra charge and refrain from trying to sell customers more than they ask for.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to



M. Lawrence said...

I agree with Jeff that this sounds like not only a classic "bait and switch" but the usual "this woman doesn't know anything about cars so she won't question it" routine. I've never heard of a "cabin air filter" myself, but would call the dealership of that model car and ask what it is, how often it needs changing, and what it costs. Just to be prepared. But the issue still stands - the garage shouldn't have charged for work that wasn't approved. I think if my serviceman pulled this, I'd say "well, take it off and put the old one back on. And show them both to me, please."

Anonymous said...

I believe the cabin air filter is a filter under the dashboard on newer cars that filter the outside air coming into the cabin (inside).

This doesn't need to be changed it can be blown out with an air compressor.

Termyte said...

I think the cabin air filter is supposed to be changed with the same regularity as the headlight fluids.


Bill Jacobson said...


The owner of the vehicle has near exclusive rights to specify what services will and will not be provided to their vehicle and a service provider who exceeds the authorized scope of service has committed trespass (to chattels). The scope of the providers authorization is usually set by contract, so your reader should double check the terms she signed.

If the agreement she signed before the work began does not include mention of the air filter, she is likely on solid ground in demanding a refund. The provider has some wiggle room in that the scope of their authority would extend to other services usually included with the stated service (replacing the oil filter, for instance, on an oil change) but it seems a stretch to consider the air filter within the scope of an oil change.

The automotive services industry is heavily regulated, specifically because of these shenanigans and your reader has rights. If your reader paid by credit card, the easiest solution here would be to issue a chargeback for the overcharge (About $16 and change here - NOT the entire amount!). She also may want to contact her Attorney General about the bait and switch. Oil change shops reek of these tactics though, so caveat emptor.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Bill Jacobson said...

PS. And she is entitled to return of the air filter they removed - requiring return of the used parts helps keep repair shops honest. Changing the air filter is a good idea but needed to be disclosed to the customer in advance. They are real though...

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