How Can You Detect Signs of Odometer Fraud?


When buying a car, one of the things to check is how many miles are on the odometer. This gives a good measure of the value of the car, its life expectancy, if warranty is still applicable. It also gives you an indication of how well the car was looked after and it will show any indication of upcoming repairs and maintenance needs.

Some car dealers roll back an odometer to defraud a purchaser. Odometer fraud, also known as “busting miles,” is when a car’s odometer has been tampered through disconnection, alteration or resetting. The car will have their odometer reading rolled back to show less miles, so the car can be priced higher. It’s something that many car dealerships and sellers of used cars are guilty of committing.

In the world of leased vehicles, drivers are limited to a certain number of miles over the length of their contract, and they usually face large fines when they exceed it. Some will commit odometer fraud just to avoid mileage fees for their rented vehicles.

Before there were digital odometers, odometer fraud has been a big concern. Inside the odometer, there are small, plastic gears that can be disassembled and re-positioned to reduce the value indicated on the odometer. Sometimes, the speedometer cable can be disconnected and be run in reverse on a power drill to count the miles backwards.

Car manufacturers combated this problem by making safeguards in the odometer. So, if some numbers were tampered with, it will be nearly impossible to make the numbers line up straight again, so it can be obvious that that odometer was rolled back. For some cars, the speedometer cable was improved to count the miles up whether the cable was turned forward or backward.

In the United States, altering, tampering or changing an odometer reading is a federal offense with some hefty penalties. Prison sentences can range from one month to eight years, and fine is up in the tens of millions of dollars. Odometer fraud also causes the consumers who were victims of it to lose over $1 billion annually in repairs, maintenance and fees.

Odometers were almost completely changed to digital, which was thought to be foolproof. The lack of moving parts means it’s much more complicated, but it is still possible to change the digits by altering, removing, and replacing the car’s circuit board. There are even tools used to modify odometers!

Detecting Signs of Odometer Fraud

Unknowingly buying a car with an odometer rolled back can have costly repercussions for the buyer, including unexpected maintenance expenses. You may not have the budget for a new car, but getting  scammed is one of the biggest cons when buying a used one. One way to get informed is by knowing how many miles should a car have so you can get a basic idea.

While it may seem like it’s hard to spot an odometer rollback, there are big clues you can find that’s just waiting to be found, and as a buyer, you must know where to look. Here are some simple checks that can assist you in detecting signs of a potential odometer fraud so you won’t get scammed:

1. Check the odometer itself.

If you want to look for signs of odometer fraud, the odometer itself is the best place to look at. Do not consider the car if the numbers on the clock are wonky, misaligned, or obscured. Also, if you’re buying a GM vehicle and the spaces between the numbers on the clock are white or silver when it should be black, there’s a good chance that it has been rolled back. Some car manufacturers program their odometers to display an asterisk if there’s any modification done, so keep an eye out for this as well.

If the odometer is digital, it leaves few to no visible signs of manipulation. So, it’s beneficial to watch out for the dashboard, missing screws, or even the screws in the footwellthat may have come from the dashboard.

2. Compare the mileage with the vehicle’s condition.

Not every car that has low miles and a rough interior is a case of a rolled-back odometer – sometimes, it’s just that the interior was neglected by the previous user. However, when combined with other issues, it can be a cause of concern.

First, check for wear on the gas and brake pedals. The brake pedal gets the most amount of wear and force over time. If the mileage on the car is low and the brake pedal is nearly worn through, it can indicate a potential issue. But if the previous driver drove in stop-and-go traffic a lot, pedal wear will not be a clear indication of tampering.

Carpets mats, and seats can be an indicator, too. These things are quite durable, and can take tens and thousands of miles before they display wear. If you can see heel spots on the driver’s side floor mat or carpet but the odometer appears too low for such wear, you can suspect that the odometer in the car has been tampered with.

The body of the vehicle itself is another thing to examine. If there seems to be more paint fade or damage that you would come to expect from the mileage and year on the car, but the odometer reading is low, there’s a chance that the odometer has been rolled back.

3. Inspect the tires.

Another reliable way of assessing how many miles a vehicle has covered in its life is to check the condition of the tires. This isn’t applicable in all circumstances, especially if the tires are replaced, but it’s a handy tip to keep in your arsenal.

If you’re looking at a car with anything less than 25,000 miles on the odometer, chances are it still has its original tires. If that’s the case, here’s what you can do to inspect them:

Get a penny and insert it into the lines in the tire with Lincoln’s head pointed downwards. There should be around 2/32nds of an inch of tread left on the tire. If the top of Lincoln’s head is exposed, there’s less than 2/32nds of an inch left of the tire thread, and it’s fine. If the odometer shows less than 30,000 miles, and the tires are original and worn down to 2/32nds of an inch, it’s possible that the odometer has been tampered with.

4. Check the paperwork.

When a vehicle is transferred or sold, the seller is required to hand over the title to the new owner. This is the official documentation that includes all the vital statistics of the car. It’s a legal requirement to indicate the correct mileage on titles for cars that are less than 10 years old.

Also, take note of the title is from out of state or brand new, as it can be a case of title washing, a condition where branded titles odometer discrepancies are hidden due to slight differences in state titling requirements. It’s another type of automotive fraud where sellers move cars previously designated as “salvaged,” or “damaged” between states to gain a new, clean title that doesn’t include this information.

Always ask to see the original title and be on guard if only a photocopy is provided. The mileage must be clearly typed on a clean background, with no smudges or marks. If any of the numbers are obscured, this must alarm you.

Another thing to inspect is the maintenance records. Ask your dealer or seller for their maintenance records, and check each receipt. It must have the mileage and date stamped on it. Follow the service history to check if the current mileage makes sense according to the track record of usage. Investigate if there are unusual gaps in dates or mileage which may be consistent with tampering of the odometer, or it may also indicate another issue caused by poor maintenance.

You can also check a vehicle’s history and other important information online. Different websites can provide a range of this type of service. You can check either the license plate number or its vehicle identification number, depending on what kind of information you are looking for.

5. Ask a mechanic to inspect the car.

It can be difficult to determine if the odometer has actually been tampered with or not, even if you do all the above checks. Parts can be replaced at any point, and some people will go to extraordinary lengths to increase their profits. Or you might end up buying a car whose mileage doesn’t fit into any convenient milestones. And sometimes, your senses can tell you that something doesn’t seem right but you can’t point out what exactly it is.

These are why it can be worth asking a mechanic to properly inspect any car you are looking to buy. If your seller or dealer refuses to allow a mechanic to look over the car, it’s a sign that there’s something wrong or hidden about your potential purchase. Whether the odometer has been tampered with, or there’s something the seller is hiding, you can be confident to walk away from purchasing the car.

What to Do if You Suspect Odometer Fraud

If you are farily confident that the car you are considering to buy has an odometer that’s been tampered with, it’s best to report it to the local police department. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives advice on what to do if you suspect odometer fraud on their website and through their Vehicle Safety Hotline. If you’ve already handed over the cash and already purchased the car, and found out too late that you are scammed – seek the counsel of a private attorney.

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