Odometer Fraud – Rolling Back the Mileometer

High or low mileage cars? On a tight budget, you may see used cars cheaper and reliable. A high-mileage car in great condition may be a great buyer’s choice!

“Too many kilometers” depends on the car status, brand, and type. High numbers mean the car is reliable if we ignore the shorter durability and possible repair problems. All in all, high is cheaper than low, which extends the life of your car.

Is it worth considering? Think of two car copies, one with 40,000 miles, another with 99,999 miles. The second one, although more used, costs around ~$5000 (in a simplistic example based on $0.08/mile). Should you pay for extra security or keep those thousands in your pocket? Most people would choose the old car.

odometer fraud

What you see is not always what you get.

What they don’t know is that the mileage does not show the years of the vehicle. Knowing 12,000 miles is the average per year, you may still find a ten-year car with less than 60K looking like new.

How? With a few cheap upgrades and odometer rollbacks, dealers can (illegally) keep selling old cars for a higher price. That’s a 99K-mileage car tampered to 40K, which sells for more than it’s worth.

Odometer is an instrument that indicates distance traveled by a vehicle, but dubious car sellers are using various instruments to roll back the mileometer. Targeted vehicles are mostly new looking and leased cars with high mileage, but still like new appearance.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be a mechanic to spot these sneaky scams. Especially as a car reseller, preventing odometer scams will save you a fortune.

Odometer Scams: “Rolling” The Extra Mile

Odometer Scams Rolling The Extra Mile

Odometer rollback schemes represent a highly profitable fraud. In addition to an old machine with false mileage you also get a car that will most likely need more maintenance and repair, thus almost guaranteeing you a return to the car repair shop. And the result of course is, more money to be paid by you.

Car buyers expect dealers to show them legit information. After all, you’re paying extra dollars on real value. The moment you manipulate the odometer, you indirectly steal hundreds if not thousands of dollars from the client.

Unless you are aware of used car scams, you may never suspect about it. Has the car stopped working? Oh, the problem must be the car model or the terrain. Or coincidence!

In odometer scams, dishonest dealers change the odometer values to set unfair prices. They can also perform extra work to make the car look like new:

  • Change car floor mats
  • Re-paint the car
  • Change parts of the car interior
  • Get rid of rust and dust
  • Perform a deep clean of the interior
  • Use an odometer rollback device

Within a week, quick little tweaks can raise the (real) value of the car. However, scammers don’t restore to make it more valuable but to hide the odometer scam.

Can you believe nearly a million tampered vehicles sell every two years? These numbers register cars in the US alone, ignoring the unreported cases. The scam has been around for at least twenty years. Imagine how many must be on the road!

You might expect that tampering has become harder as technology improves. However, today’s digital odometers are even easier to manipulate. Scammers are just one Google search away.

We don’t know whether these dealers prefer certain types of cars. What we know is that odometer scams become easier to hide with highly reliable vehicles. 

To name a few, some high mileage-able cars in the US are Honda Civic, Subaru Outback, Geo Prizm, or Toyota Camry & Tacoma. For many of these models, +300,000 is the norm. For the average car, 100,000 miles is already too much without involving serious repairs.

The idea is, rolling back the odometer costs nothing or only a small amount. Anyone can do it in no time. In fact, you can find legit mechanics who change it for you to correct a tampered mileage. 

Ways To Find Out Odometer Scams

Ways To Find Out Odometer Scams

The fastest way to find out is, of course, to compare the mileage with the car condition. If you buy a car on Craigslist, for example, you may not have the chance to inspect it properly before you buy it. If you visit a dealership, they may have made those superficial restorations to remove suspicion.

But when visiting large dealerships, it’s improbable that they invested that much time, car by car. Why restore dozens of cars victims may not even buy? Chances are they rolled back the odometer, and that’s it. It will be easier to recognize once you know what to check.

#1 Original Pieces

Looking at the wear and tear is a good place to start. A car with less than 30,000mi shouldn’t look damaged. A +100,000mi vehicle shouldn’t look like new, even as a reliable model.

“It depends on the usage and driver.” Of course.

Now, used car sellers want to profit the most from their old machines. That’s why you rarely find original vehicles; instead, they restore multiple parts to make it look better.

A car with around 20,000mi shouldn’t require restoration. Look at the engine, the tires, and interiors. If this like-new car isn’t original, it may be older than they want to make you believe.

#2 Ask For Documents

The owner will have maintenance records by year. Mechanicals inspects the vehicle to make sure it works well, registering the mileage in every inspection.

An odometer scam would appear like this: year 6, 60,000mi; year 7, 70,000mi, year 8, 40,000mi.

Mind that a dishonest dealer can skip documentation or forge the records. 

Let’s say a car records 10,000mi a year, and on year 11, the dealer rolls back the odometer to, say, 40,000mi (like on year 4). The fraudulent dealer will only show you the report 1, 2, 3, 4, and 11. They skip records from that mention a higher mileage.

These records won’t be enough to detect odometer scams but will help us find other problems that may point to that scam.

#3 Appearances

Although appearances can be deceiving, it’s worth looking at them. A dealer may manipulate a car with low durability and hide it with restoration. When selling highly reliable vehicles, a 200,000mi car may look as good as the one with 100,000mi

If the car you buy has a high resiliency, they are likely original, not restored. Then, you can inspect by looking at the appearances.

Unreliable car models stop working as soon as you get close to 100,000mi, so they restore it to cover the problems. It’s recommended to test-drive the car thoroughly before getting to conclusions.

If the dealer doesn’t let you drive or inspect it until you buy, they may be trying to sell you a useless car.

#4 Check The Car Key

A car key of specific car brands (like BMW) contains a lot of useful data. One such module of data ‘stores’ the mileage of the car. If the mileage recorded on a car shows a different value than the one that is on the ECU or instrument panel, then you know that it has been clocked.

The mileage on a car key can be verified at a main dealer.

Types Of Odometer Scams

Types Of Odometer Scams

You can only see so many details as a driver. Hiring a mechanic will make the inspection faster and more accurate. They are familiar with the many ways to fake the vehicle life.

#1 Odometer Rollback 

When selling old cars, you can change mechanical odometers with the right tools. The con man sets the numbers he wants, like 1mi, and hides that manipulation from the client.

Digital odometers are just as easy as the traditional ones. You buy a tool that costs around $300, connect to the car, and reprogram the device. If you hire a mechanic to fix your odometer, they will bring these types of tools. Legally this service is displayed as “mileage correction”.

For scammers, it inflates the car price by several hundred or thousand dollars in seconds.

#2 Piece Replacement

When selling low-durability cars, dealers prefer to restore them as they change the odometer. After taking out some bolts, they remove the whole speedometer part which connects to the odometer.

They replace the odometer with a new one they buy or change the speedometer block completely. They keep doing superficial restoration, so the client assumes the odometer number makes sense.

#3 Title Manipulation

Changing the title can affect up to 75% of the car value, depending on its damages. Scammers can rebrand the salvage title with laundering techniques. 

The dealer spends on repair and inspections to get the certificates. The client buys a “rebuilt version” of the salvaged car, which you can’t drive or use for insurance.

Rebuilds, however, are cars you can register and sell.

Preventing Odometer Scams

Preventing Odometer Scams

Unless you make an in-depth revision, it takes time to recognize an odometer scam. Even when all the red flags point to that direction, it may end up being genuine.

The next time you buy a used car, remember:

  • Hire the right mechanic.
  • Inspect and drive the car before you buy it, especially with online dealers. That vehicle super deal you want may not exist when you come to the dealership. Instead, they’ll try to sell you another model you don’t need.
  • If spending dozens of thousands on an unreliable car sounds like a big deal, consider renting instead. Renting may cost more in the short term, but at least you can return the car if anything goes wrong with them. You’d be amazed at how many drivers sell their car to get rid of the burden and give it to an unsuspecting buyer.
  • Ask for papers. A person who can’t show you the documents is probably a middleman, not the owner. You could end up closing a deal the seller never agreed.
  • Be cautious with payment fraud. You can still ruin an amazing deal if your payment method has no buyer protection. It’s not a red flag, but it requires caution when using a wire transfer, escrow, or upfront charges.

The Bottom Line

Bottom Line

Did you think odometer scams are a thing of the past? They happen more often today then they did in the past. Detection of odometer fraud by law enforcement agencies can be difficult and time-consuming as well.

For the criminal seller however, odometer tampering represents a relatively low-risk method of achieving substantial profits.

In rare instances where dealers get caught by you, they enthusiastically negotiate a financial settlement with the customer in order to avoid negative publicity and potential problems with the law.

Thankfully, you can protect from these schemes by spending a bit on inspections first, which cost nothing compared to what you save.

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