By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan contributor
updated 4/17/2006 8:28:11 PM ET 2006-04-18T00:28:11

Owning a car takes a lot more than forking over some cash and driving it off the lot. Over a car's lifetime, drivers can end up spending thousands of dollars for insurance, gas and maintenance costs, including the regular oil change. But should you really be changing it every three months or 3,000 miles? Plus, Lynn in Colorado wants to know how to dispute an item on a credit report.

I own a 1997 Camry with 54,000 miles on it. I have been changing the oil every 3 months or 3,000 miles. Now I drive less, about 3,000 miles in 5 or 6 months. Should I still change the oil at three months or wait till I reach 3,000 miles? Also, since I bought the car I have been using Valvoline oil. Is it OK to change to another brand?

I remember getting my first car (a hand-me-down) and how my father kept telling me how important it was to change the oil every 3,000 miles. A lot has changed since then. Today’s oil is much better and it can last a lot longer.

Here’s what to do: Check your owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.  If it says change the oil every three months or 3,000 miles and you haven’t traveled 3,000 miles in that time, change it anyway. But, I think you’ll find that the recommendations are much longer than that. For instance, Acura suggests that I change the oil in my car every 7,500 miles or one year. 

Tom and Ray, the hosts of Car Talk on National Public Radio, recommend an oil change every 5,000 miles, although they admit knowing when to change the oil is not an exact science. “It may be too soon for many people and too late for a few,” they say, “but for the vast majority, 5,000-mile oil changes will help your engine last to a ripe, old age.”

Here are a few reminders:

  • You should always change the filter when you change the oil. You don’t want to contaminate the new oil with the gunk that’s in the old filter.
  • Check the oil level every few hundred miles. “If you add oil, don’t overfill,” cautions Phil Reed, Consumer Advice Editor forEdmunds, “because that can cause serious engine problems.”

And it’s not a problem If you want to switch from one brand of oil to another, says John Ibbotson, an automotive expert at Consumer Reports. “Just make sure to stick with the manufacturer’s recommendations for engine oil weight,” Ibbotson says. You should also use a product with the API Certification Seal for gasoline engines, which means the oil meets the American Petroleum Institute’s latest requirements and that it is energy conserving.

My stepson has problems with his credit report because of a hospital bill his father was supposed to pay. My stepson, who was 19 at the time, was on his father's insurance and his father also claimed him as a tax deduction. Somehow the hospital put his name on the bill and since his father won't pay the bill, it is hurting my stepson's credit score. Is there anything he can do to get this off his credit report?
-- Lynn K., Delta, Colo.

Your stepson may need to contact a lawyer to get his father to take responsibility for this debt. You didn’t say it in your note, but I’m assuming you’re talking about the part of the hospital bill that was not covered by insurance. The chances of getting the problem resolved are much better if this is just a delay in receiving payment from the insurance company.

Since your stepson was not a minor at the time of treatment, “he may have legal responsibility for the medical bill, even though he was covered by his father’s insurance policy,” says Rod Griffin, Manager of Consumer Education at credit agency Experian, It’s also possible that your stepson signed paperwork with the hospital agreeing to be financially responsible for paying the bill.

Griffin suggests talking to the hospital to see if there is any way to have that debt removed from your stepson’s credit history. Since this negative mark will stay in his file for years, you might consider paying off the debt, if that’s a financial possibility, and then taking legal action against the father. The hospital might be willing to work out a payment plan.

The big question is, has the hospital sold the debt to a collection agency? “If so, removal of the account becomes much more difficult because it is no longer owned by the hospital,” Griffin explains.

There is another option. Chris Keller at the Federal Trade Commission says your stepson has the right, under section 611-A of the Fair Reporting Credit Act, “to dispute an inaccurate or incomplete entry in his credit report,” which would require the credit reporting agency to re-investigate the situation.

If you dispute the entry, keep the letter short and sweet. Avoid the temptation to give a blow-by-blow description of what happened, just summarize. You should include any documentation you have that shows your stepson was on his father’s insurance policy. Keller says you might also want to mention that you are sending a copy of this dispute letter to the Federal Trade Commission. Remember, you may have to do this for all three major credit reporting agencies.

If that does not result in the deletion or modification of the item, your stepson has the right to file a statement “that disputes the factual accuracy or the completeness of the item,” says Keller. This statement of 100 words or less must be included with his credit history any time it is requested by a potential creditor.

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