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How to Spot Odometer Fraud

Lyndon Bell
by Lyndon Bell
April 29, 2011

One of the most common used carscams disreputable individuals perpetrate is odometer fraud. Rollback schemes are quite common, even with the new digital odometers, which ironically were designed to prevent fraud.

The Federal Truth in Mileage Act (TIMA) requires sellers to provide actual, truthful odometer readings and to disclose any known inaccuracies. TIMA makes odometer fraud a felony. Failure to disclose a changed or repaired odometer (meaning altered in any way), and/or falsifying mileage documentation will result in fines and/or imprisonment.

In one recent case, an unscrupulous dealer was sentenced to 100 months in prison plus three years of supervised release for his role in a conspiracy to alter odometers on used motor vehicles, provide false odometer statements, and commit wire and securities fraud. He was also ordered to pay restitution of more than four million dollars to the victims of his fraud. In addition to consumers, this individual scammed other automobile dealers and insurance companies.

"This type of financial fraud harms consumers making one of the biggest investments they will make: their automobile. Dishonest dealers who roll back odometers cheat customers out of their hard-earned money, impede informed buying choices, and raise safety concerns by misrepresenting the actual condition of the vehicles they sell," says Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Civil Division. "The Justice Department will seek appropriately tough sentences for those engaging in these illegal practices."

So, with all that said, how do you avoid getting taken?

While any vehicle can be a subject of odometer tampering, it's hot-selling vehicles that are most often targeted. Additionally, this type of fraud occurs most frequently with fairly new vehicles that have accumulated high mileage in a short time.

  • Make sure the mileage on the document matches, or is inline with the mileage on the odometer. If the mileage is not easy to read on the title, take that as a big red flag. Similarly, note the date the title was issued and compare that to the manufacturer's sticker in the driver's side doorjamb. The date on the sticker should be reasonably close to the issue date on the title. Also, if the vehicle is being sold shortly after the title was issued, a new title could have been issued to disguise odometer fraud.
  • The car's mileage is typically recorded during these events. Compare the odometer reading with the maintenance or inspection records recorded mileage; the odometer should read slightly higher than the latest record. Oil-change and maintenance stickers usually have the mileage recorded on them as well. A close scrutiny of them will be informative as well.
  • When a mechanical odometer has been doctored, the numbers are sometimes crooked. On an unmolested gauge, the numbers are always lined up straight. By the way, the digit most often tampered with is the 10,000 one, inspect it carefully.
  • If the gas, brake and or clutch pedals are worn smooth and the odometer reflects low mileage, something's amiss. Other areas to check include the door strikers, seats (particularly the driver's seat) and floor mats (again, particularly the driver's mat). These items only get worn with use. A low mileage car would not show undue wear in these areas.
  • The VHR will have the mileage recorded as of the last maintenance or inspection. This makes it relatively easy to check for odometer discrepancies in the vehicle's history. Always order your own VHR, that way you know it hasn't been altered.

Other indications of tampering include loose or missing dash screws, scratches around the speedometer or the odometer, and non-original parts on low mileage cars. As always, you should have an independent professional mechanic of your choosing inspect the vehicle. As part of that inspection, make sure they look for signs of tampering.


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