The News 4 I-Team is going undercover.
I-Team Producer: “I wanted to get the car checked. The check engine light is on.”
We’re going to area AAMCO stations from Virginia to Maryland, DC to Delaware.
I-Team Producer: “It’s a free inspection with check engine light?”
We’re going to show you what that “free offer” really means.
I-Team Producer: “Did you look?”
AAMCO Employee: “I didn’t take a look.”
You’ll see what happens when you leave your car behind and why some customers, like Vince Pyle, say they feel duped.
"I took them at that commercial and at their word,” Pyle tells us.
He says when the light came on in his 1997 BMW, he thought of the AAMCO commercial that says: "Check engine light on? We'll check it for free."
According to Pyle, the definition of “free” is “it will not cost you a cent, a penny, a quarter.”
But Pyle says the shop charged him $50 and told him, “If you let us fix the car, then we’ll wrap that fee into the price of the car repair.”
Pyle explains he had to pay up for a printout that showed what the “free check” found. "It's not free information,” Pyle says. “It wasn't free."
That check-engine light is on in our News4 I-Team vehicle, too.
But we already know what the problem is because we had Certified Master Technician Jim Parks inspect it from top to bottom.
“Cosmetically, it's not the most attractive,” Parks says about our vehicle’s dents and scratches. “But mechanically, it's in very good shape."
Parks has worked as a technician for 35 years and now investigates auto complaints in Montgomery County, Md. He made our check engine light come on by cutting a wire near what's called the intake air temperature sensor, or IAT.
It won't hurt the car, but Parks says a quick check with a handheld scanner hooked up to the car under the steering wheel should give a code pointing to the problem area.
Parks says if AAMCO’s technicians follow “the diagnostic procedure, there are only two wires to check."
To see what really happens when we take the car into the shop, we put hidden cameras inside, outside and throughout the car before visiting seven different AAMCO centers.
I-Team Producer: “You guys still do the free check engine inspection?”
AAMCO Employee: “Yea, I’ll do it for you.”
Each time, our cameras show AAMCO employees hooking up the scanner to get the IAT code.
But then, the pitch starts to change.
AAMCO Employee: “It’s just a sensor.”
Two locations say the sensor needs to be replaced. Something, they suggest, we can do ourselves.
But when we push for more help, one points us to the wrong location under the hood.
AAMCO Employee: “Check if it's disconnected. It's right by the air cleaner, where you put the air filter in.”
I-Team Producer: “It's near the air filter?”
AAMCO Employee: “Yea, air filter.”
At a Delaware shop, we're told the specific problem could be hard to pinpoint.
AAMCO Employee: "When people ask me, ‘Well, I got this code, what's wrong with it?’ I actually have no idea."
That doesn't keep him from offering a wrong solution - at a charge of $200.
AAMCO Employee: "It's probably just a matter of cleaning the upper intake manifold."
The estimate is even higher at a Virginia AAMCO.
AAMCO Employee: "Your intake air temperature sensor is bad."
I-Team Producer: "What are we looking at on that?”
AAMCO Employee: “$225.”
I-Team Producer: “$225?"
Jim Parks says, “To immediately condemn the sensor is just jumping the gun."
Parks rechecks the car after each visit and confirms there's nothing wrong with the IAT sensor. He says had any of the shops lifted the hood, they would have likely found the cut wire.
He estimates that even if we did have to replace that sensor, it generally should cost less than $140, including parts and labor.
"I guess if it were me and I did that free scan, I would at least open the hood,” Parks says. “Because if the sensor had just come unplugged and you plugged that back in, you're a hero. It hasn't cost you anything, hasn't cost the consumer anything, and the next time they do need some significant work they will keep you in mind."
We move on to the AAMCO in Randallstown, Md., where they do look under the hood - but only after we agree to pay $45.
They spot the wire and tell us they can fix it - and the sensor - for $300. That’s more than double what our expert estimates it should cost. An employee also warns us the car could shut down if we don't do something.
The owner of the Randallstown shop wrote the News4 I-Team, saying he believes "all of our interactions with your shopper were proper and in accordance with the check engine light for free offer" and that "we also recommended replacing the sensor because, in our opinion, there was reason to believe that the sensor might have been affected by the damage we found."
Our last stop is the AAMCO on Howard Street in Baltimore.
The sign out front advertises that "free check." But it's a different story inside, where we're told we'll have to pay $49.99, which would go towards any future repairs.
Curious to see what would happen, we agree.
Our camera catches an employee rifling through our middle console, unlocking our glove compartment and even using our car to pick up a part for another vehicle.
Once inside the garage, the worker spends less than three minutes under the hood, never in the location of the IAT sensor.
Still, the shop says it needs to be replaced for $200.
The owner of the shop tells AAMCO’s corporate headquarters that despite that sign outside, he does not "participate in the promotional ‘free check’ because of the high incidence of such requests.” He says, "The individual who recommended the sensor replacement is no longer employed there." So, he's "been unable to confirm his reasoning behind that recommendation." The owner says he "is confident, however, that the problem would have been corrected if your shopper had authorized the repair."
But he did offer to give us a refund.
In the end, only one AAMCO we visited actually found the specific problem - that cut wire - and fixed it for less than $100.
A spokesperson for AAMCO tells the News4 I-Team the shops we tested "identified the correct code error" and that "the problem would have been fixed if the repair, and its costs, were authorized."
But AAMCO says, "If even one AAMCO center customer experiences something different, we want to make things right."
He says that's why the company decided to pull the promotion and retrain all franchisee shops.
The "very few AAMCO franchise owners that fail to deal honestly with customers are held accountable."