In September Aaron Edelman of Indiana took his 2009 Volks­wagen Routan minivan to the local VW dealer for a safety recall for the car’s ignition switch. But in addition to the fix, the service department performed a “free multipoint inspection.” According to Edelman, the shop presented a lengthy list of repairs the car supposedly needed.  

The service adviser informed Edelman that his brake pads needed replacing. The only problem? Edelman had replaced the pads himself only a month before.

According to Edelman, the car mechanic also spotted a coolant leak near the thermostat, a repair that would cost $376. The mechanic ominously warned that the fix would require removing the valve cover. Edelman knew his car well; the thermostat was easily accessible, held on by only two bolts.

When Edelman got home, he inspected the leak—the only evidence being a tiny amount of dried coolant residue.

“I replaced the hose clamp,” he said in an interview, after reaching out to Consumer Reports via our Stori.es social-media platform.

“It cost three dollars at Advance Auto.” How long did it take him to do the work? “Six minutes.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some dealerships are exploiting safety recalls as a “marketing hook” to sell additional repair work or even a new vehicle.

Today’s cars, like Edelman’s 110,000-mile kid hauler, are staying on the road longer; the average American car is now 11½ years old, according to IHS Automotive. And Consumer Reports data shows that older used cars are remaining reliable for a longer time.

“The reliability of the vehicles and the components in them has shifted the equation from repair to taking care of maintenance items at the right intervals,” says John Tisdale of test development operations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. “Seventy percent of the work being done is maintenance.”

As a result, the increasing longevity and reliability of today’s cars, coupled with longer maintenance intervals, are squeezing profits of dealers and independent car mechanics alike.

To be sure, those “free” inspections often can detect problems that might cripple your car down the road. And a trusted car mechanic will help keep your car on the road and safe.

But some less ethical mechanics are taking those shop visits—often for a safety recall or as part of a routine oil change—as an opportunity to pressure car owners to perform service work that isn’t necessary. (Learn about the 5 auto repair shop scams your mechanic might try.)

How can you fight back and avoid falling for a money-grabbing ploy by your mechanic? With a little bit of education. It’s often as easy as checking the owner’s manual, which will give the precise schedule of what needs to be inspected or replaced, and when. 

Beware Recall Add-Ons

Car owners should take recalls seriously and have them performed at a dealership to ensure their vehicle’s safe operation. But like Edelman, owners should be wary of dealerships that will take advantage of the recall service to bamboozle customers with additional frightening-sounding, but unnecessary, repairs.

One Los Angeles Mini owner took her low-mileage 2006 Cooper S to her local BMW/Mini dealership for a recall. Upon returning her car, the mechanic informed her that the Mini needed more than $6,000 worth of other work—almost equaling the value of her car. Startled, she took her Mini to an independent mechanic, whose estimate was 76 percent lower—and who told her that most of the work was unnecessary.

Consumers have told us that certain dealers have refused to perform recall work unless the owner agrees to expensive repairs or maintenance items as well. That’s not only unethical but also a serious violation of the detailed consent orders between NHTSA and the manufacturers.

“A consumer whose vehicle is under a safety recall is entitled to free repair of that safety defect, period,” explains NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge. If a dealer refuses to provide that remedy, or attaches conditions to it, you should contact NHTSA at safercar.gov.

NHTSA has even appointed an independent monitor to oversee the massive Fiat-Chrysler and Takata airbag recalls, to eliminate attempts by dealers to upsell customers with unrelated repairs.

The scams don’t just happen with unscrupulous dealers adding extra work during recall campaigns. A minor service can turn into a major hassle if a shady mechanic gets his way.

In the past, a typical car needed its oil changed every 3,000 miles. But modern cars can go much longer between services—and with modern synthetic lubricants, oil-change intervals can now stretch beyond 10,000 miles. The annual “tuneup” is a thing of the past because intervals for replacing spark plugs and oil and air filters have also been extended. That means fewer times a dealer gets to make money servicing your car.

Respect Routine Maintenance

If your car hasn’t reached the manufacturer’s suggested mileage for a service interval, or the item is outside the scope of routine maintenance, regard recommendations from your mechanic to replace those extra parts with skepticism, even suspicion.

“If they want to hit you with a bunch of extras that are not in the maintenance schedule, that raises a red flag,” says John Ibbotson, chief mechanic at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Although the owner’s manual will tell you what each service interval entails, certain modern cars’ onboard computers will inform you if that period has changed based on your driving habits.

If your owner’s manual says you are at or past the recommended interval for, say, air filters, it makes sense to replace them. And if your car’s engine has a timing belt, you really don’t want to postpone that major service that should be performed between 60,000 and 105,000 miles.

You can also crowdsource your maintenance decision. No matter the vehicle, there’s a community of enthusiasts who love to share their knowledge in online forums. For example, PriusChat shares that the hybrid car’s 12-volt battery usually dies after six years or so. Those owner sites are invaluable and often include a discussion of trusted mechanics.

“You can get an idea of whether the price is in the ballpark and how common the issue is,” Ibbotson says.

Also, the Consumer Reports Car Repair Estimator can be a great tool—providing local work estimates from shops that meet certain quality standards, and even explaining common parts and services in an online encyclopedia. You'll find it at ConsumerReports.org/carrepair

Break Down the Breakdown

If a mechanic says your car isn’t running properly, you’re entitled to a simple explanation. In most cases, he or she should be able to explain the problem in detail, in terms that you can understand.

“Asking the right question is key,” says Ray Evernham, garage owner-turned-NASCAR crew chief. “You want a written estimate and an explanation. Sometimes just asking these questions keeps a shop from taking advantage of you.”

If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you, ask the mechanic to show you the worn part in question. If you still don’t like the answer, get a second opinion.

In the end, Ibbotson says, you can avoid headaches by using your network of friends to find a local mechanic with whom you can build a relationship.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.