Sketchy Diesel Tuning Black Market Forming as US Shops Stop Deleting Trucks

The EPA's crackdown on illegal diesel tuning has sent owners looking for help into the dark corners of the internet.
Ford, edited by author

The diesel tuning business has changed a lot in the last four years. The Environmental Protection Agency is scrutinizing everybody from huge engine manufacturers like Cummins to small tuner shops. Reputable aftermarket companies are staying on top of compliance, but pickup owners still want the performance, fuel economy, and reduced complexity that come with emissions deletes—and they’re willing to risk paying just about anyone who can make it happen.

Finding a company to help remove the exhaust gas recirculation system or diesel particulate filter from a Cummins, Duramax, or Power Stroke engine in a newer-model truck isn’t as easy as it once was, but it’s not impossible. Whereas nearly every big-name diesel tuner in the U.S. sold EGR and DPF deletes during the 2010s, they’ve paid enough fines by now that customers are left to look internationally. Other countries, even those close by like Canada, are far more lax when it comes to modifications like these, so it can be as simple as ordering online.

That goes for software and hardware. Tuning is available under every rock on the internet if you’re willing to download a sketchy file from a random folder—you just never know if it’s legit, and there’s a chance it comes from China or Russia, not the U.S. or Canada. It’s the hardware that can be tricky to obtain, though there’s an influx of EGR block-off plates, straight pipes to replace DPFs, and more coming from north of the U.S. border. They’re even available for the latest platforms like the 2023+ Ford Super Duty.

I’m not naming this company for obvious reasons, but here’s one example. Notice the strange AI images—there are very few actual product photos on the site. Also, they mention EZ Lynk, a tuner manufacturer that was sued by the U.S. government in 2021.

Still, just because a truck owner secures these parts doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. I talked to PPEI owner and lead calibrator Kory Willis about it as his company tunes these pickups daily. He also sees the junk files circulating the web, often on a customer’s ECU when their truck isn’t running right. That’s almost always because the source of the tunes is highly questionable.

“The files either get hacked, which we see every day, or people will buy them from someone in Canada,” Willis told me. “Interestingly enough, you can order from three or four companies in Canada thinking you’re getting different tune files. When you open them up, they’re all the same.”

Willis used the example of a 10×10 fuel map. With 100 values on the map, there’s zero chance of the values being the same—down to the decimal point—on multiple tunes from different companies. Still, Willis says that’s what’s out there, and he claims to have purchased a file from a Russian site and found it to be identical.

Huge tune file libraries are also sold online, some claiming to hold more than 10,000 tunes. The thing is, most of them aren’t unique and they simply wear a different label. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for shops to purchase those libraries for $5,000 and make their money back in a hurry by installing them on customers’ trucks for $1,000 a pop. Those are the ones that often make their way back to PPEI in need of repair, according to Willis.

The situation becomes even riskier as these files seep into the world where anyone can sell them as their own. Spend any time in diesel truck Facebook groups and you’ll see people using code words like “weight loss” or “diet plans” instead of explicitly talking about deletes—yes, really. The original poster is usually asking where they can get their truck deleted, and they’re met with comments that simply say “DM me.” And it isn’t unprecedented for these to be high schoolers who snagged a delete tune for cheap and they’re selling it for $150 because they spent no time developing it on their own.

“They’ll send the file out and a lot of times, they don’t work, which is great for us because it keeps us diagnosing them,” Willis said. “But when it doesn’t work, you’re basically sh*t out of luck.”

“When you see an 18-year-old kid start advertising on forums that they’re a tuner and they offer things for every model there is, that kid hasn’t been alive long enough to develop the skills to even do that,” Willis continued. “So the first thing I’m going to ask is, ‘Did they steal from me?’ So I’ll look at the software and most of the time, it’s not [mine]. They end up with a tune library from somewhere, it’s a bunch of junk files, and we don’t worry because they’re going to fizzle themselves out there.”

In the end, Willis says the delete tuning scene in the United States is “basically a game of whack-a-mole.” Those looking for tunes and hardware will find them, though they come with no guarantees. Many diesel truck owners are OK with taking that risk, and what’s more, it works for some folks. But it goes to show that even with major federal action against tuners, people are still finding a way to get what they want.

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