Odometer fraud may sound like no big deal. After all, it’s only numbers, buried in the middle of a dashboard, and who really checks the odometer on that used car anyway? Sure, low miles is a great selling point, but let’s be honest, is there really any difference between the Ford with 35K on the clock and the Chevy with 40K?
Maybe not. On the other hand, if that Ford was actually rolled back from 85K, is there a difference now? You bet there is!
Odometer fraud takes many forms, from the simple disconnecting of the speedometer cable (most speedometers and odometers use the same sensor system) to the “inadvertent” error in leaving out the fact that the numbers have turned over twice, not once, to the sophisticated “rolling back” of the digits. With modern cars, where the numbers are digital rather than analog and where computers control the systems instead of wheels, roll-backs are harder to accomplish. But it is not impossible.
So Who Cares?
If you’re planning to buy a used or program car any time soon, you should care! The lower the miles on the vehicle, the less wear and tear it has endured, or at least that’s the theory. The Blue Book value (or reasonable worth of a vehicle) is standardized assuming a consistent pattern of use, generally around 12,000 miles of driving distance per year. Higher mileage rates lower the worth of the vehicle, meaning that the Blue Book price isn’t accurate anymore. Additionally, higher-worth cars cost more to insure, and vehicles with fewer miles are also assumed by buyers to need less major maintenance.
But when the odometer is changed, or the record of the mileage is otherwise fudged, it’s a whole new ball game. Beyond the fact that selling a car at Blue Book price when the car is worth far less due to mileage cost you more money, you’ll be hit with higher costs in other areas too. A false odometer reading means your car gets appraised for more by your friendly insurance agent, and therefore costs you more for the insurance. And finally, most modern cars start to need serious maintenance somewhere around 60,000 miles, including belts, tires, and other such drains on the checkbook. In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that odometer fraud, in one form or another, ended up costing consumers over $1 billion in additional costs, that 3.47% of all vehicles will undergo odometer fraud, and that the average additional cost for each of the approximately 452,000 cases of odometer fraud yearly is $2,336.
How To Recognize The Signs
Odometer fraud, like any other type of fraud, involves someone, somewhere, lying about a document or record. Fortunately for us all, however, some records are a lot harder to forge, including age symptoms of a vehicle. For your best chance at detecting and avoiding odometer fraud, follow these simple rules:
1. Get the vehicle identification number (VIN) off the vehicle and get a copy of the vehicle’s title history. This can be obtained from either the DMV or from a Web service such as Carfax.com. There is usually a small fee for the history. Compare the current mileage with the mileage on the title when the car was last sold. Also, check to see if the mileage was recorded as “Actual Mileage” or not. Discrepancies here should raise serious red flags.
2. If the vehicle has a logbook of maintenance procedures, check it for the mileage when those procedures were carried out. Alternatively, look for oil change reminders, tire or shock warranties or the original warranty information on the car. Chances are that many of these items will have a mileage on them.
3. Check the car for unusual maintenance or repair features, especially ones that are inconsistent with the car. For example, original brakes and tires are usually good for about 55,000 miles, so new equipment on a purportedly low-mileage vehicle may be a clue. Likewise, the timing belt should be changed about every 75K miles, and air and fuel filters about every 12,000 miles.
4. Ask if the vehicle was used for business (a “fleet” vehicle) or personal use, especially if the vehicle is low-mileage. Fleet vehicles usually have 30-35K miles put on them each year. Interestingly enough, cars from the Southwest also tend to have higher-than-average mileage issues, about 17K rather than the national average of 12K per year.
5. If you have a reliable mechanic on tap, have him or her check the emissions system, the suspension, steering and engine wear. Excess wear in any of these areas may signal odometer fraud. Also have him or her check to see if the odometer case has ever been removed.
Also, be especially alert when buying used Chrysler and Dodge minivans, or the Chevy Lumina or Ford Taurus. Odometer fraud is far more common in these makes and models than in other vehicles.
When in doubt, kill the deal. There are thousands of used vehicles available; the one you’re looking at right now is not the only one that will fit your needs. Be especially wary of the salesman who touts the car’s low mileage and then refuses to answer questions about maintenance procedures or whether the lot mechanics ever looked the car over. Reliable dealers will either know, or will tell you honestly that they do not trust the record provided by the seller.
Good luck with your car buying!