How To Protect Yourself From Odometer Fraud
Scrutinize everything when buying a used car.
Mileage is one of the core determining factors of a car’s value. Although a high-mileage car can be mint and a low-mileage car can be junk, you can generally gauge a car’s condition largely on how much it’s been used. That’s one reason why every car has an odometer, and why odometer fraud, the act of altering a car’s mileage, is so serious. When you buy a used car, it’s worth triple-checking that it’s accurate.
According to Carfax, U.S. roads in 2021 were littered with approximately 1.8 million cars that have been tainted by illegally rolled-back odometers, up from 1.6 million in 2019. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) backs that up with data that says more than 450,000 vehicles are sold each year with fraudulent odometer numbers. Just last month, two people from a New Jersey dealership pleaded guilty to costing unsuspecting buyers a total of $674,606, according to the Department of Justice, by rolling back odometers and falsifying titles on 118 cars.
This is a heinous act and an attack on car culture, as altered vehicles left undiscovered proliferate throughout classifieds and affect owners beyond the first buyer. This leads to incorrect maintenance schedules and degrades the overall ownership experience for the car’s entire life. These types of cons will always exist, especially with digital replacing analog odometers, so they can’t be stopped, but with some tips, you can spot shady deals all by yourself. Read on to learn what to look for.
Odometer Fraud Detection Tips
Do Your Own Research, Be Careful With Provided Documents
In the online era of "order first, decide later" shopping, many people are far too trusting with their transactions. Buying a car is one of the biggest purchases most people make, and each step in the process should be examined as closely as possible. Many car sales in 2022 come included with a Carfax report, which provides a third-party verification of a car’s mileage and other details, but it’s still important to double and triple-check everything with your own research. Get your own reports on the car using the VIN and compare it with what the dealer provides.
Even if the dealer provides a Carfax report, take a look at the date. If they send you one that’s months or years old, it could be missing critical details.
"Anyone buying a used car, even a newer model year used car, should be aware of this issue and be sure to do their homework," Carfax Public Relations Director Emilie Voss said in an email. "Check the vehicle history – Carfax receives data from more than 131,000 sources. Many records on a Carfax report include mileage, like a service shop visit or a vehicle registration. We are able to flag anything suspicious where the mileage is moving in the wrong direction."
An exception to collecting your own information would be service records and receipts that have traveled with the vehicle from previous owners. Theoretically, any document could be doctored, but fake receipts would be a pretty extensive scam. These records often record mileage numbers, or they could have other clues about the vehicle history.
Compare the Current Mileage to the Recorded Mileage
This is the most rudimentary step when checking for rollback fraud. Look at the information on your VIN report and make sure it matches the mileage on the car.
Look for Inconsistencies in the Title
Just because the total mileage lines up with the mileage on the car doesn’t mean the rest of the mileage reporting is kosher. Go through each detail of the report and look for jumps in mileage, stagnation of mileage, or mileage that’s out of order. For example, even though the mileage might say 56,000, the mileage before that might read 511; 12,359; 34,955; 44,999; 61,101; 72,575; 51,830.
Be Aware of Cars That Are Most at Risk
When shopping for a car, it’s important to consider the context of what you’re buying so you can look for clues about the car’s past. Old cars are more at risk of having their odometers rolled back because they’re more likely to have a lot of miles on them. Separately, vehicles that were once part of a lease are also more likely to have rolled-back odometers. This is because leases often have restrictive mileage limits, so somebody who went over the limit might have tinkered with the mileage to avoid overage costs.
Look for Dings, Scratches, Chips, or Dents Around the Instrument Panel Housing
Gauge clusters are not inaccessible like baggage in my trunkless Opel GT. They are required to be removable for repairs, so it’s possible to pop them out of the dashboard. One common way to forge mileage is by swapping the gauge cluster. Or, on older cars, the cluster can be removed and then the odometer could be physically rolled back. If you notice damage to the plastic surrounding the cluster, it might be an indication that it has been removed or tampered with. That doesn’t always mean it was removed for nefarious purposes, but it’s possible.
Use Common Sense With Wear and Tear
If somebody has driven a car tens of thousands of miles, that usually shows in the form of worn touch points inside the car. Check these areas to help you determine if the car looks like it’s been used more than the mileage indicates. Tires can also hold clues.
- Steering wheel
- Foot pedals
- Door handles
- Window switches
Most Too-Good-to-Be-True Deals Are
This is a rule that can be applied to any purchase of a used product and should help you avoid a variety of different types of scams. It is extremely rare that you find a real deal on a quality vehicle, even more so if it’s a specialty vehicle listed on the internet. It’s possible, but when you come across one, it should be a red flag. When an offer looks too good to be true, every detail should be scrutinized to the fullest. Check, double-check, and use every resource available, like a certified dealership, to vet that car.
Take it To Your Trusted Mechanic or a Dealership
Mechanics and dealerships have access to specialty tools that you might not have access to, might not be able to afford, or that you simply don’t want to buy. Not only will they be familiar with common inspection points to find signs of odometer fraud, certain shops will also be able to check a car’s computer modules to search for mileage inconsistencies.
"We also recommend any user car buyer take their car to a trusted mechanic for an inspection before purchasing," Voss said. "A trained mechanic can spot things you or I might not, including wear and tear that doesn’t match the odometer reading."
What To Do If You Spot Odometer Fraud
If you find a car with falsified mileage, you should report it. This page from the NHTSA lists every state enforcement agency that can investigate odometer fraud. Find your state and call the authorities.
Here’s a clip that articulates details about odometer fraud. Good luck out there, and hop into the comments if you’ve got more suggestions on how to avoid odometer fraud.