Oil change shops caught cheating under the hood

We put local oil shops to the test. See which ones failed our undercover investigation.

When you take your car to the shop for maintenance, you expect to get what you pay for. But a KXAN undercover investigation found that’s not always the case at some oil change shops in Central Texas.

Automotive experts say full synthetic oil is better for your car than much cheaper conventional motor oils. That’s why it can cost up to and more than $100 to get an oil change with a high oil-canister-fillingquality, full synthetic oil. But unless you’re an expert, it’s impossible to tell the difference between conventional motor oil and synthetic motor oil just by looking. That’s why one mechanic says his former employer was taking advantage of customers by not giving them the high quality oil they think they’re buying.

“It's a rip-off,” said Terry Withrow, who says he worked at the True Balance Express in Round Rock for four months. “They're doing their oil changes, but they're telling you its Castrol or its Mobil 1 and it’s not. It's cheap oil,” Withrow explained. “It’s for money. All for profit,” he continued.

Withrow provided KXAN with a picture he took of a then fellow True Balance employee filling jugs labeled as full synthetic oil with what he says was cheap, regular oil.

“They're telling them it's Dom Perignon and they're handing them a Miller Lite with a Dom Perignon sticker on it,” claimed Withrow. “They're refilling a full synthetic jug with regular oil,” he continued.

So our investigative producer went undercover to get his car's oil changed at the True Balance location in Round Rock.

"I wanna get the best you got," our producer told a True Balance employee named Jeff. "Synthetics start off at $89.99. You want to get that?" Jeff asked. "Yeah," our producer replied.

After changing the oil, Jeff told our producer he put Mobile 1 5w30 synthetic oil in his car and charged $95.19.

We then pulled a sample of the oil from the Round Rock True Balance shop out of our producer’s engine and sent it to Alcor Petrolab where technicians can run tests to determine whether or not the type of oil sampled is what the shop claimed on the sales invoice.

Failing our tests

Alcor Petrolab has been conducting tests on petroleum products for businesses in the industry since 1968.  The lab’s analysis showed the sample of oil from the Round Rock shop came no where close to matching the chemical make-up of Mobil 1 Full Synthetic.

We went back to True Balance shop in Round Rock a second time.  We paid for Mobil 1 full synthetic but lab tests again show we got a cheaper, lower quality oil.

So we went to the other three True Balance Automotive locations in Elgin on Highway 290, in North Austin on North Lamar, and in South Austin on West Slaughter.  At each location we asked for the very best oil the shop had.  At the Elgin and North Lamar shops we were sold Castrol full synthetic.  At the Slaughter Lane shop a man named Jimmy changed our oil both times and told us we were getting top-dollar, Mobil 1 Full Synthetic.  But the lab results show at all four True Balance Automotive locations we got cheaper, conventional oil.

Blake Branson with Alcor Petrolab says he put the samples of oil we sent through a series of tests.  We also sent him the payment invoices for each oil change along with the samples.

“The samples you sent us from True Balance we tested three different ways: chemical analysis; a physical properties analysis; then a longevity analysis,” Branson explained. “Not a single sample you sent us performed in the manner that we would expect for the synthetic oils that were claimed in the invoice,” he continued.

Who is responsible?

Terry Withrow says the owner, Brannon Harris, told employees to charge customers for full synthetic oil but to put cheaper, lower quality oil in their cars.

“Brannon Harris used to call it ‘a lick,’” claimed Withrow. “That’s like street code for ripping them off,” said Withrow.

We caught up with Brannon Harris at the True Balance location on West Slaughter Lane to show him our lab results.

“We've been to all four of your locations here, in fact we've been to two of them twice, and you sold us premium, high grade, high dollar, synthetic oil. We had it sent to a lab in Dallas and you gave us the cheap conventional oil. You didn't give us what we paid for,” Brian Collister said to Harris.

“That shouldn't be right,” Harris responded. “We should have given you the premium synthetic oil,” he continued.

“They're telling them it's Dom Perignon and they're handing them a Miller Lite with a Dom Perignon sticker on it,”— Terry Withrow, former employee

“Why would that happen?” Collister asked Harris.

“I don't know. We should've given you premium synthetic oil if you had what you ordered. That's what we give customers. I don't know what the problem is,” Harries replied.

“Is that what you give customers? We've talked to a former employee who says you do this to all your customers,” said Collister.

“No we do not,” said Harris. “…that this is just a way for you to pocket more profit,” continued Collister. “No that’s not how we run business here, Sir,” responded Harris.

“So this lab, six lab tests, all showing that we paid for synthetic but got cheap conventional oil at your shops. How can you dispute that?” Collister asked Harris.

“I'm not disputing anything. I'm telling you what we do to our customers. They order synthetic oil, we give them synthetic oil,” said Harris.

But that's not what you did to us six times,” said Collister.

“I don't understand. This has come out of nowhere. I haven't gotten no customer complaints,” said Harris.

“Well how is a customer supposed to be able to tell when you don't give them synthetic oil? asked Collister. “We had to pay hundreds of dollars to get lab tests done to prove it. Maybe that's why you do it, because nobody can tell,” Collister continued.

“I have no other comment,” said Harris.

“This is indisputable evidence, by a lab, that shows that instead of synthetic, you gave us cheap, conventional oil every single time, six times,” Collister said to Harris.

“Like I said, I have no comment,” said Harris, who told us he’d have to talk to his employees.

We then see Jimmy, the employee that changed our oil both times at the True Balance location on Slaughter Lane.

“We paid you for synthetic oil twice, but we sent the oil to a lab in Dallas and you gave us cheap oil, not synthetic,” Collister said to Jimmy. “What would you like to say about that?” Collister asked.

“Nothing,” replied Jimmy, who soon locked himself in the bathroom as we continued to ask him questions.

Terry Withrow says he quit his job at True Balance and came to KXAN because he could no longer do what his former employer had employees doing to customers.

“I feel really bad for the customer,” said Withrow. “I just couldn't do it anymore. I just had to quit,” he continued.

Another shop fails lab testing

We also tested other oil change shops in Central Texas. We randomly selected locations from San Marcos to Cedar Park.

On two different occasions we went to Lakeway Quick Lube and Automotive and paid for high grade synthetic oil. Again, we sent the samples to Alcor Petrolab. The lab analysis found the oil put in our cars both times did not match the full synthetic oil we purchased.

"Neither of those samples performed well in any of the tests that we looked at when you compare that to known samples of synthetic oil, what was claimed on the invoice," said Branson.

The registered owner of Lakeway Quick Lube and Automotive, Stephanie Albright didn't want to talk when we showed up to ask her about the oil her mechanics put in our cars. She walked away soon after we started asking questions.

“Can we just talk to you about why we didn't get the oil that we paid for?” Collister asked Albright. “I'm not sure,” she responded. Can we leave these test results with you? Let me just show you what we did real quick,” said Collister. “I don't need you to. I need you to leave please,” said Albright. “You have to talk to my husband. I don't know what's going on,” she continued. “It appears that we bought something but you didn't give it to us,” Collister said. “You gave us the conventional oil,” he continued as Albright went inside the office and shut the door.

Lakeway Quick Lube and Automotive’s lawyer, Alan Ceshker said in an email his client believes its bulk oil will likely test differently than the individual, bottled product. A statement relayed by the shop’s lawyer reads:

“Up until this point, we have never questioned the product we receive from our distributing companies. After we asked many questions: we discovered that all the bulk oil is transferred by pipeline or 18 wheeler trucks. So, unless shops purchase bottled products, there is no way to know for sure what you are getting. When we order 55 gallons or more, it is always delivered in bulk. The company pumps it from their location into their trucks, then from their truck it is pumped into our tanks. We do not have the capability to test oil when we receive it to make sure we are getting what we ordered- and not just our location but 99% of establishments do not test oil they purchase. The only way we know to remedy this problem, is to communicate with our customers and explain they have the option of bottled synthetic and bulk synthetic oil to choose from. All managers and employees have been informed of this change. Also, we have always allowed any customer to bring in their own oil and we do the labor. We value our customers and will do what is necessary to ensure they have a positive experience.”

Branson told KXAN in an email: “I expect there to be no difference in the physical properties of a given oil whether sampled from a retail quart bottle or a bulk container. Lubricants are tested at many points in the supply chain. Entities such as Alcor Petrolab derive a portion of their business performing quality checks on the oils and fuels at various points throughout the supply chain (batch release from manufacturer, at distribution points on the pipeline, etc, etc).”

Branson followed up with another email that reads: “Based on all of the testing that we’ve performed so far, where we’ve found both positive and negative confirmation of oil substitution, I think that we can safely state that the tests can accurately distinguish between synthetic and conventional oils. Furthermore, based on our experience, we can safely say that there is effectively no difference between a bulk oil and a packaged oil of the same brand and grade.”

Alcor Petrolab also offered Ceshkar the opportunity for Lakeway Quick Lube and Automotive to get a quote for testing the oil from its bulk tanks.

Shops we tested

Shops that passed lab testing

KXAN also went undercover to Bradzoil in San Marcos, Coleman Express Lube on Highway 290 in Oak Hill, Jiffy Lube on Lamar, Kwik Kar in north Austin on Highway 183, and Express Oil Change on Whitestone Blvd in Cedar Park. We paid for synthetic oil at each, including Mobil-1, Castrol, Pennzoil, Valvoline and Royale Purple. The lab results show all five of these shops put the high grade synthetic oil we paid for in our cars.

“We consistently found the samples performed as we would expect for what's the oil stated on the invoice,” said Branson. “You caught them essentially telling the truth,” he continued.

Protect yourself and your car

There's effectively no way to tell if you've been given the top shelf synthetic oil or cheaper conventional oik short of spending the money for lab testing. The only surefire way you can protect yourself is to bring your own oil to be changed at a shop.

Most oil change shops will allow you to bring your oil. You should expect to pay for labor and a disposal fee.

Experts also recommend motorists take their cars to mechanics at shops they know and trust.

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