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The $10 Harbor Freight Tool That Can Save You From a $1,000 Scam

Here’s a recent scam attempted on me that failed thanks to a certain level of distrust of dealership mechanics and a $10 Harbor Freight tool every car owner should own.

It Happened to Me…Recently

Earlier I’ve shared with readers that in the interest of keeping peace within my family, I am not allowed to work on my spouse’s 2018 Kia. My spouse’s logic, however, determines that I am allowed to take her precious SUV to the dealership for its recommended service according to a neat little service record book they gave her upon buying the car new. Lucky me.

Now don’t get me wrong about this. I in no way begrudge doing things like this for my spouse. Especially when it comes to which of us, I would rather have to deal with clipboard-carrying dealership technicians.

While I have had nothing but good things to say about the dealership service department I have visited with her car the past 5 years, my last visit revealed that things have changed. I noticed that there was a new crew of technicians manning the counters and I did not think much about it. I was there for a recommended 60,000-mile transmission fluid and filter change and had no worries about their competence since I had always had good service there and it’s not exactly rocket surgery.

However, when the job was completed and the clipboard-carrying technician approached me, I was told that the fluid and filter change went fine but that I needed to pay an additional $1,000 for brake pad AND rotor replacement. When I quizzed the tech on why I needed my brake pads and rotors replaced he told me that my front pads were down to 5mm and the rear pads at 2mm.

The 2mm pads I could see as a possibility and would normally agree to have them replaced on the spot. However, they got greedy.

When I pressed him for more information about the rotors wanting to know if the pads had scored the rotor surfaces or if the rotors were worn beyond specs, he gave me a deer-in-the-headlights look and began stammering about how that he was not the one who actually inspected the rotors but assured me that the tech who did probably found some low spots on the rotors. And…and that I was fortunate that they had the exact rotors I needed on hand and could have them all replaced in half an hour.

By this time, I could not hear anything else he was saying due to my inner BS alarms sounding off. I thanked him all the same and told him I would have to check with my spouse because it was her car and beyond my paygrade to agree to any repairs.

Upon arriving home, I told my wife her service department wants another $1,000 from her. Oddly enough I was then asked to inspect the brakes and rotors myself. Lucky me.

A quick inspection showed that the front pads were actually 5 mm, but the rear ones were 4mm---not the 2mm the service tech told me. Furthermore, a simple visual inspection of the rotors followed by an additional check with my trusty brand-X calipers revealed that they were as true as they were new, just a little worn---but still within specs. Time to find another garage.

The Point to All of This

The point to all of this is that soft sell scams happen to all of us, but a little paranoia and an inexpensive Harbor Freight brake pad gauge can actually save you a significant amount of money and help you determine whether a garage is being honest with you. If they had told me that just the pads needed replacing, I probably would have gone long with it because it was believable and not something unexpected after 60,000 miles. However, when their responses to the condition of my rotors got them to hand-waving, I knew something was amiss and that this was an experience worth sharing.

That said, here is a past video from the Toyota Maintenance YouTube channel where the host comes across the same type of scam and explains how to do your own inspection. Also included below is a second YouTube video that shows a little more clearly how to check your brake pads with the same $10 Harbor Freight gauge tool that I and the host use.

Brake Pad Depth Tool from Harbor Freight

Caveat emptor and all that.

Brake Repair Scam

Brake Pad Inspection Using the Colored Gauges

And finally…

Just a note: when it comes to brake pad depth it is generally recommended to go ahead and have the pads replaced at 3mm or less. Wear can be uneven on the pads leading to edge or side scraping; and, it's best to do it when they are that low in case you forget about having them serviced later.

For additional related articles, here are a few for your consideration:

How Some Car Repair Garages Hide Their Brake Repair Scam and What You Can Do About It

Common Brake Repair Scam in Major Name Tire Centers

How Service Centers Damage Your Brakes with a Simple Tire Change

COMING UP NEXT: Best Hybrid Cars from Consumer Reports' Tests

Timothy Boyer is a Torque News automotive reporter based in Cincinnati. Experienced with early car restorations, he regularly restores older vehicles with engine modifications for improved performance. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimBoyerWrites for daily new and used vehicle news.

Image Source: Author's image


John (not verified)    December 30, 2022 - 4:37PM

The only time that someone actually tried a scam of this magnitude on myself was when my girlfriend's jeep had a rocker arm come off the spring and I asked them to go ahead and change the oil too. They then claimed that the engine was so bad and needed to be replaced since the oil wouldn't drain out from the oil pan. I told them to stick a screwdriver up into the hole if they had to. Idiots didn't even change the oil but just added more oil to it. I changed it just fine myself, but the guy was insistent that the engine was going to blow at any moment. Six years later the damn thing is still on the road! Always find a mechanic that you can actually trust because they are the ones that are worth gold.

Jim Stinson (not verified)    January 2, 2023 - 8:00PM

In reply to by John (not verified)

Great idea, but just how do you find one without spending thousands of dollars looking?

Took my '99 Dakota to the local dealership to have the front brakes looked at. The caliper locked up on the road and melted the seals, boiled the fluid, and the rotor was glowing red when I looked at it. When the mechanic checked it out and ignored the melted rubber around the caliper piston, the really pretty blue color of the rotor and the unmistakable odor of the burned fluid and rubber, I knew that I needed to get my truck out of there. ASAP.

Robert H (not verified)    December 31, 2022 - 11:47AM

That's nothing new, you have been lucky have one service your vehicle, sad part was service writer went along with it.... you mention to service manager or dealer GM, that's when you realize it isn't OK with any of them and the flatrater will be bounced out on his backside.....

Jay (not verified)    January 1, 2023 - 8:03AM

This is a flawed story looking to capitalize on over generalized stereotypes. The "clipboard" guys are the Service Advisor who only reports to you what the Technician (also commonly but incorrectly referred to as the mechanic) finds and reports on when doing the actual work.

Service Advisors write you up, handle customer interactions and sell jobs. Outside of airing up tires from time to time or plugging in a quick scanner, they don't work on cars one bit. At least at any franchise dealership.

A new crew of Service Advisors is possible, but not the unknown factor here is the Technician who may or may not have intentionally assessed the pads being too worn. This is the most probable thing, assuming that you did a proper inspection of your pads with HF tools than he was able to do while the vehicle was on a lift.

Second to lastly, it's generally good practice to replace the rotor, or at the minimum resurface them, when replacing pads. You mentioned the rotors appeared to be WORN but within specs (not sure how you measured that... I didn't see any mention of a micrometer) but a resurface could remove a good amount of material, so your own assessment of them being worn may indicate the tech didn't think there was enough material to still be in spec after resurfacing. Or it could be the tech's default move to go straight to suggesting full rotor replacement. That would also save the labor of the resurfacing since that takes a good amount of time to do, makes the rotor more prone to future warping, etc. Too little data here to make a full analysis on that.

Lastly, something you're probably not aware of, but shops are legally required to give you the old parts after a repair. So assuming they do this (most do...), you would have had a perfect opportunity to inspect those 2 or 4mm pads in your hands, while not stuck inside calipers, upsidedown under your car using a flashlight and HF tools to which you would have been fully able to hold the shop accountable to their repair.

Next time this happens while you're at the dealership, ask your questions, ask to see the brakes while it's on the lift or see a picture if their insurance doesn't allow customers to stand under a car while it's up in the air. Like you said... It's not rocket science.

Dawn (not verified)    January 2, 2023 - 3:37PM

In reply to by Jay (not verified)

Hi. I've been in the automotive industry for over 40 years. I've worked in Auto Part Stores, been a mechanic for almost 20 years, and I've built and raced my own car. At 60,000 miles, if the brakes have been done before and the rotors resurfaced, they may very well not be able to be resurfaced again. Also, unless you know exactly what the parts look like that fit your car, they can give you back pads and rotors off any vehicle and 99% of the consumers wouldn't know the difference. The techs work on commission. They'll write up anything they can connected to a brake job to suck the life out of you. Most things they write, you physically can't even see to tell if they're new. IE: hardware, hoses, caliper bolts. The WORST place to trust your car to for honest service is a dealership or a chain repair shop. IE: Midas, Minekee, or any oil change quick lube. Oil change quick lubes will automatically tell you your air filter and cabin air filter need to be changed and try to sell you wiper blades as well. They all work on commission. That's why all that stuff is in stock. They have a better chance of you saying yes if you don't have to wait for the parts. Yes, it's a terrible way to do business but, it's been like that forever.

Wayne (not verified)    January 3, 2023 - 9:18AM

In reply to by Jay (not verified)

You talk about the service writer like all he is there to do is relay the info tgat the tech gives him. You could not be much further from the truth. One of the most important skills a service writer must have to get hiring is the ability to maximize R.O.'s. There is not much difference between a service writer and a vehicle sales person, neither should be trusted at all.

Allan Borg (not verified)    January 1, 2023 - 10:57AM

I can relate to having my car misdiagnosed. I took my minivan in estimate the cost to repair a power steering leak. They told me the steering rack needed to be replaced because the seals were bad. Together with that the tie rod ends would have to be replaced and then a front end alignment performed. Estimated cost was almost $2,000. I chose to order my own steering rack had a cost of $150 and took it to a mechanic I know for a placement. When the mechanics inspected the repair needed he found the only thing wrong was a rusted fluid line that only cost $35 so I ended up returning the steering rack for credit.

Lex (not verified)    January 1, 2023 - 12:29PM

It's typically express techs that do those inspections, ie very new non certified techs, sometimes with no prior experience; they make mistakes sometimes. If it was a tech that came to talk to you it sounds like you weren't actually at a dealership, I've never known a dealership to send a tech to speak with a customer (unless they specifically request it) because they have a specific position for that usually called service advisor or service consultant. I do a lot of traveling and have been to many different dealerships for service.

Also at dealerships if you ask to be shown something, they'll usually escort you back to your car so you can see for yourself. I have yet to be turned down when I've asked. Locally, I have two techs that I trust, one at a dealership, one at a very small mom and pop.

Doesn't really matter where you go, there are trustworthy people and bad apples.

Todd Warren (not verified)    January 1, 2023 - 5:43PM

This is why my shop performs digital inspections with photos and videos. To many shops take advantage of customers lack of knowledge. I send photos with explanation and let them know we will perform an inspection in front of them. If the pads are 3 millimeters we can prove it.

Joe (not verified)    January 2, 2023 - 7:49AM

Stealerships just can't help themselves. Then they wonder why almost nobody wants to come back after the warranty period is over.

Mark Day (not verified)    January 3, 2023 - 2:22PM

Recently went through an experience regarding brakes, being told by a chain tire
shop that I needed front pads and an on-the-vehicle (?) rotors turned. Cost: $600.

There had been a noise from the front during braking that didn’t sound good.

Didn’t trust the company/diagnosis so got some best rated pads and put them on
myself for a total of $68.00. My diagnosis of the brake noise was that the outer edge of the rotors were a little high from wear and the pads, under braking, would touch the outer edge and cause the noise. I really didn’t even need new pads but as long as everything was apart, installed them. Should be good for another 50k + miles.

My vehicle is a 2012 Toyota RAV4. Note to Toyota – put wear sensors on your brake pads so it’s not a guessing game as to when to replace them.