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Indirect tests have detected recombination in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from many animal lineages, including mammals. However, it is possible that features of the molecular evolutionary process without recombination could be incorrectly inferred by indirect tests as being due to recombination. We have identified one such example, which we call “patchy-tachy” (PT), where different partitions of sequences evolve at different rates, that leads to an excess of false positives for recombination inferred by indirect tests. To explore this phenomena, we characterized the false positive rates of six widely used indirect tests for recombination using simulations of general models for mtDNA evolution with PT but without recombination. All tests produced 30–99% false positives for recombination, although the conditions that produced the maximal level of false positives differed between the tests. To evaluate the degree to which conditions that exacerbate false positives are found in published sequence data, we turned to 20 animal mtDNA data sets in which recombination is suggested by indirect tests. Using a model where different regions of the sequences were free to evolve at different rates in different lineages, we demonstrated that PT is prevalent in many data sets in which recombination was previously inferred using indirect tests. Taken together, our results argue that PT without recombination is a viable alternative explanation for detection of widespread recombination in animal mtDNA using indirect tests.