Lately, Jiffy Lube has been slipping on its own oil. Since last spring, several of the quick-lube franchises, especially five Los Angeles-area stores owned by Heartland Automotive, were caught charging for work never performed.

In the Los Angeles case, NBC4's undercover investigation found that Jiffy Lube charged a producer for a new fuel filter, even though the old filter remained under the hood. The investigation brought others disillusioned with Jiffy Lube out of the woodwork in at least 17 states.

In response, Luis A. Scoffone, President of Jiffy Lube International, went on the offensive with a September letter to customers.

The following "Jiffy Lube Pledge" just went into effect and will be displayed in all service centers:

  • We will inform you of services that may be necessary during your visit, and you will have the ability to make the final decision about which services to purchase.
  • We will recommend our services based on manufacturers' time and mileage intervals for
  • severe
  • driving conditions. If you do not drive in
  • severe
  • conditions or need more information about different driving conditions, please let us know.
  • We may recommend certain services based on other criteria if manufacturers' recommendations do not exist for them.
  • We will never base fluid services recommendations on the appearance or smell of your vehicle's fluids.
  • We will never charge you for services that you have not authorized or that we did not complete properly. Please ask if you would like to see or receive your used parts and we will be happy to accommodate your request.

The company also has three "operational initiatives" geared toward preventing fraud.

First, a "technical mystery shopper" program will inspect a car before and after the work ordered is done. This will presumably ensure that work really IS done before a customer forks over that check.

Second, Jiffy Lube has established a "Store Audit Group" to measure the quality of service at each store. These internal auditors will conduct customer invoice reviews, take fluid samples, check for compliance with brand standards, interview employees, file exception reports if something is out of order and review customer satisfaction data.

Third, Jiffy Lube will have franchisees and District Managers conduct annual Business-Assurance Reviews beginning in 2007. Topics covered include business principles and ethics, safety and environmental practices, service recommendations for products sold, personnel policies, store oversight structure and compliance with procedures manuals.

A Jiffy Lube Success Story

Not too long ago, I experienced my own "Jiffy Lube adventure," which turned out okay in the end. I brought my Ford Windstar van to Jiffy Lube for the usual every-three-month oil change.

While sipping coffee and craning my neck to watch the ceiling-mounted TV, I usually expect my "personal" mechanic to arrive and escort me to the car to point out a couple of other services needed. I wasn't disappointed.

"Ma'am? Are you the owner of the Windstar? Come with me, please."

I followed.

As I leaned over the engine, Mr. Lube pointed to the serpentine belt:

"See that? It's all ragged and worn out -- you should replace it, since you already have 70,000 miles on the vehicle. This could break while you're driving sometime," he warned.

It seemed logical, so I told them to install a hefty new serpentine.

Fast-forward two days. I'm cruising along Route 50 in Chantilly, a major road in busy Fairfax County, Virginia. I'm returning from a saxophone lesson, in a mellow mood.

The engine starts to whine, worse than a three-year-old. Several minutes later, power cuts off (including steering) and I somehow force the white behemoth to the side of the road. I caught a gorgeous sunset while waiting for the tow truck to drag the deceased to the Ford dealer.

Guess what the problem was? Yup -- improperly installed new serpentine belt. To put it simply, the new belt had fallen off.

This little adventure cost almost $300 to fix, not counting the tow. So I was extremely motivated to let Jiffy Lube know about the debacle as soon as possible. I did a little research to get the name of the franchise's owner and manager.

NOTE: You can do this by calling your local town hall or county building and talking to whoever is in charge of the business/corporate division. In most places, any business has to have a license to operate, which is on record at city hall.

Next I hit the computer and sent this letter:

General Manager
Jiffy Lube, Inc.
210 Maple Avenue West
Vienna, VA 22180


Re: Serpentine belt debacle

Dear Mr. Manager:

I've been a Vienna Jiffy Lube customer for at least fifteen years, first with two Peugeots and for the past eight years, with my Ford Windstar Minivan.

On August 4th, 2004, I visited your store for the usual oil change. The mechanic working on my car said that the serpentine belt looked worn and should be replaced. After almost 70,000 miles, this seemed reasonable. The belt was replaced, along with other repairs, for total of $333.06. I enclose a copy of the bill.

A short while later, I was riding along Route 50 in Chantilly when the car started to whine. Several minutes later, I lost all power and barely managed to maneuver the car to the side of the road to avoid getting hit. As you can imagine, this was a hair-raising experience.

We had the car towed to Ted Britt Ford, at a cost of about $100. The Ford dealer reported that the serpentine belt had locked up and had to be replaced, along with the belt tensioner and idler pullies. Cost for this repair was $283.03 -- bill enclosed.

Since the belt was obviously installed improperly, I am asking Jiffy Lube to reimburse me for the $283.03 I had to spend at Ted Britt Ford for a new belt.

I look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,

Within a week, I got a check in the mail for the full amount, along with a nice note.

Some Not-So-Happy Endings

Unfortunately, not all stories end so happily.

As the nearly 400 Jiffy Lube complaints in the ConsumerAffairs.com database illustrate, the devil really is in the details. What starts off as a minor error can quickly morph into a catastrophe.

In 2006 alone, we heard from customers like Judy of Fort White, Florida, whose radiator flush and oil change led to a $567.76 bill to replace the water pump on her Dodge Caravan. Or Jamie of Twin Falls, Idaho, whose engine failed about a month after her Jiffy Lube oil change.

Upon opening the hood, Jamie was surprised to see the oil cap sitting on top of the radiator. Her local Jiffy Lube had no record of her visit, Jamie reports.

Loose bolt, hose and filter stories are common. Daniel of Chesapeake, Virginia noticed an oil leak after his Jiffy Lube oil change. The store blamed a leaking oil pan gasket, but Daniel discovered that the oil filter was loose, and tightened it with a filter wrench.

Mohammed of Miami, Florida wasn't so lucky. After having the oil changed on his 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer, he "heard something fall out of the car on the way home." Problem: the tech neglected to tighten a nut after the old oil was drained out.

A prototype customer story usually reads like this: I took my car to Jiffy Lube for Signature Service. While driving home, I noticed a) the oil light was on, b) the car wouldn't go over 25 mph, c) the engine was knocking/smoking/whining. I called Jiffy Lube/ returned to Jiffy Lube, they investigated and determined that it was not their fault. I'm now stuck with a) a $1500 repair bill, b) a car I can't sell

Kit Lindsay of Warrensburg, Missouri, a transmission mechanic who owns his own shop, has an especially frustrating story.

He overhauled the transmission on a customer's 1998 Dodge Caravan, covering the work with a 36 month/50,000 mile warranty. Problem: the customer had the transmission serviced at Jiffy Lube while still under Lindsay's warranty. The usual strange noises, slipping and revving followed and the owner brought the van back to Lindsay.

Guess what? There was a gasket on the transmission oil pan, despite the fact that Chrysler didn't use gaskets on this model.

After taking the transmission apart, Lindsay found that the Jiffy Lube tech who worked on the car didn't install the o-ring seal between the filter inlet and valve body casting. As a result, "the transmission pump was drawing air which burned the pump, starved the unit of lubrication and eventually resulted in the failure of the transmission," Lindsay said.

Unfortunately, Lindsay got stuck with the tab for Jiffy Lube's error and was never reimbursed, despite repeated requests.

Jiffy Lube Speaks

Are sloppy workmanship and refusal to pay for errors the "Jiffy Lube way?"

Absolutely not, says Judy Scholl, Customer Service Manager of Jiffy Lube International, a subsidiary of Shell Oil based in Houston. Scholl has been with the company for 25 years. "We service more than 25 million vehicles a year, and the complaint rate is running about .00l%," Scholl said.

If a customer has a problem or complaint?

Scholl recommends speaking to the manager on duty. She points out that the back of each invoice contains warranty information, along with the toll-free number, (800) 344-6933. Customers can call this number to complain, or go to the Jiffy Lube Web site at www.jiffylube.com and reference the "customer care" section and fill in the online feedback form.

What about the elusive franchisee/owner?

"We have franchise information and are able to contact a particular franchisee," said Scholl. Ninety percent of Jiffy Lube locations are franchises, with the rest company-owned.

Scholl points out that Jiffy Lube employees are "technicians," not ASE-certified mechanics (ASE = National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.) They receive computer-based training, which is standard across the country. Techs work their way through progressively more difficult "modules," based on manufacturers' service recommendations for each vehicle.

So when the Jiffy Lube tech calls you out of the waiting room, he's going to recommend a service or part replacement suggested by the OEM (original equipment manufacturer,) and based on your car's mileage. Employees are not compensated on a "quota" system, which can encourage the sale of add-on services.

Scholl expects the new corporate initiatives to ensure consistent performance among dealerships. Audits will match store inventory with receipts and the "mystery shopper" program will keep employees on their toes.

"Our people are passionate and dedicated to quality service," said Scholl, and the new oversight measures will drive this home to customers.

If All Else Fails

Jiffy Lube swears it is taking proactive steps to ensure that all its customers drive away with the services and products they paid for. If you have a problem which remains unanswered despite complaining to the store manager and filling out the online feedback form, try the following measures:

• Use the complaint form to send your story to ConsumerAffairs.com. (Please don't email me directly; complaints need to go into the database via the complaint form).

• Call your local town hall or business registration office. By providing a business address, the municipality can tell you the registered name and address of the owner. Write the owner a business-like letter explaining the situation and enclosing copies of receipts. Don't be abusive or threatening -- it doesn't help.

• Register a complaint with your local chapter of the Better Business Bureau, accessible at www.bbb.org. There's an online complaint system and you can also find your local BBB.

• Let your state's Attorney General know about the situation. Find him or her at www.naag.org, the Web site of the National Association of Attorneys General. The site includes a master list of Attorneys General, state by state, with name and address of each. Or call (202) 326-6000. Check our Resource Section for other consumer protection agencies.

• Complain to the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees franchises. Send your letter to: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

• File a complaint in your local court. Depending on the dollars involved, this may be a small claims court, which normally doesn't require that you have an attorney. Call your local clerk's office for more information or check out our Small Claims Guide.

---

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney who writes frequently on consumer issues.