I have been a customer of the Indian Oil-owned petrol pump, opposite the famous Siddhivinayak Temple (Mumbai), for decades. When I drove in on Sunday, 17th November at 11am, there was the usual query to check for engine oil and coolant. Since I had noticed that the coolant level looked rather low, I asked them to check it. Incidentally, I almost never allow attendants to check the oil and coolant, because my car is on an annual maintenance contract and I have once been a victim of another trick where a petrol pump started fuelling the car without waiting for me to check the meter reading and I was short-changed on fuel.
Instead of the quick top-up that I expected, we (Debashis Basu was with me) were told that the coolant in the car was almost over and what remained in the coolant section looked like it was diluted with water. This got us worried. Probably seeing the surprise on our face, the attendant spotted a sucker and was quickly joined by another to help him pull off the scam.
They opened the radiator section. Inserted a stick to check the coolant and with much head-shaking told us that even that too contained diluted coolant that needed replacement. We were told that we would need at least four litres of coolant and it was best to drain out the existing diluted coolant.
Since all this was happening in the open, we didn’t suspect anything wrong and agreed to change the coolant. They then drained the existing coolant into a plastic tray placed under the car and pointed out how it looked badly diluted!
When we asked for options to buy coolant, we were haughtily told: ‘This is an Indian Oil petrol pump; we stock only one coolant that is provided by the company, the famous brand ‘Servo’.’ This seemed good enough. More importantly, the coolant was, indeed, a much darker blue colour and more viscous, making the dilution story look real.
So, the attendants began to load up the coolant and had soon emptied as many as five bottles into the car. On hindsight, this should have raised some red flags. After all, we maintain our cars well and this had never happened in over 25 years of owning Japanese cars – Suzuki and Honda, which were always on annual maintenance contracts (AMCs). But when one has read blogs and news reports about service centres sending cars back with a quick clean-up instead of service, one ends up being distrustful.
So here we were, fuming and thinking that the petrol pump had caught a big service lapse. I sent off a written complaint to my service centre. That is when things began to unravel. The service centre promptly sent a mechanic on a bike and I learnt a few things with a live demonstration.
1. Honda cars use a particular brand of coolant that is non-viscous and of a lighter shade of blue. Hence, it looked diluted compared to the Indian Oil version. The mechanic had brought along Honda cars’ guarantee that the coolant would last for 100,000 kilometres. This was an eye-opener and important for people like me to know. So, there was no likelihood of depletion, unless there was a leak. On checking, it was clear that there was no leak. About the low coolant level, again Honda requires a certain low level and the plastic jar is supposed to be less than half full.
2. I was also informed that the engine oil levels are another area where petrol pump attendants cheat people by claiming the level is low, when it is, in fact, what it should be.
Since the explanation by Mr More, the mechanic, seemed plausible, I asked him to accompany me to the pump to confront the franchise-owner and attendants. The owner, Mr Shukla, had left. Now, here’s something interesting.
The persons who conned us were off duty. However, those present hardly seemed shocked at my story. When I asked Mr More to explain to them what he told me and fished out my bill as well as the photo of the coolant cans, they merely shook their heads and said that it was wrong to cheat me. One of them even agreed that he recognised me as a regular customer.
They mildly tried to tell me that I should come back the next day and speak to the owner; but when I said, I had every intention to file complaints and put it out on social media, they called the manager/franchise-owner, who quickly offered to refund the entire money for the coolant! I was also allowed to speak to Mr Shukla who also sounded apologetic and said he had asked my money to be refunded. Yes, for all five bottles.
This is probably the fastest refund I have ever received (of Rs1,478 ) that too when the coolant remains in my car(although I am not sure whether that is good or bad).
Clearly, the pump runs such a racket that they hoped I would take the money, be happy to retain the coolant and not bother to follow up with a formal complaint. That is what a vast majority of customers would, probably, have done.
Instead, I went to the Indian Oil website and sent a detailed complaint to the entire team listed there in charge of service stations as well as to the chairman.
Obviously, our public sector giant, Indian Oil, pays such hefty commissions on its lubricants, additives and coolants that it is very lucrative for petrol stations to incentivise their attendants to con customers.
To Indian Oil’s credit, I received a call as a follow-up to my written complaint. I was told that the Corporation does not encourage such practices and they would get back to me after a detailed investigation.
Well, we can wait for an answer; but I find it difficult to believe that this fraud is not known to the organisation. Such brazen cheating has a way of getting back, at least through company executives and others.
Those who understand technology or how financial scams work are usually surprised at how people are conned into losing money by asking them to part with a PIN number for click on some QR code.
Similarly, automobile buffs, who read the fine print in instruction manuals and take pleasure in poking under the hood of their cars, would find it amusing that people can be scammed at petrol pumps to load up on coolant and engine oil that is not necessary.
As they would point out, the high-level technology of modern cars has an in-built system of beeps and alerts for anything that goes wrong and, probably, protects a majority of car-owners, especially when their vehicles are under annual service contracts that actually work (a quick Google search would show you that is not a guarantee too). I am told that if the coolant in my car had really dipped below what it should have been, the car would have sent me a signal—another lesson learnt!
For somebody who is involved in spreading financial literacy, this was a hard lesson in some basics about cars and the importance of reading the manual! And that sarkari organisations are just as likely to con you as private ones.
On Wednesday morning, I received a call from the same representative of Indian Oil, who claimed to have investigated the matter and said they could not find any concrete proof of what happened. On why the money was paid back in such a hurry, his answer was that it was a “service gesture” by the petrol pump dealer. On asking why they need to replace five litres of coolant – he began to make excuses for the attendants. I have asked for a written response.