If you’re old enough to have seen the classic 1980s movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” then you know exactly what odometer fraud looks like. Matthew Broderick and his buddies borrow the car without asking, run up about a hundred miles, and then roll back the clock counting those miles so nobody is any the wiser. No big deal, right?
Well, not exactly. Odometer fraud—also known as mileage rollback, or “busting miles”—is a federal crime and comes with some pretty hefty penalties. Prison sentences have been known to range from one month to eight years and the amount of money paid in fines is up in the tens of millions of dollars. A 2002 investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that, annually, nearly half a million cars sold across the U.S. have their mileage details manipulated. They reckon this costs buyers an extra $1 billion a year, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
The reasons why people might do such a thing are obvious. Vehicles that have covered fewer miles are expected to be more reliable and less likely to need costly repairs so they naturally command much higher prices on the resale market. In the world of leased vehicles, drivers are often limited to a certain number of miles over the length of their contract, and usually face fines if these are exceeded. Some people will even resort to odometer fraud just to avoid mileage fees on standard rented vehicles. Research suggests that the incidence of people rolling back the miles on their leased vehicles has increased by 30 percent since 2011.
The increased use of digital odometers isn’t really helping the situation, either. While a lack of moving parts means that it’s much more complicated, it’s still possible to change the digits by removing, altering, and replacing the vehicle’s circuit board. There are even tools that are specifically designed to modify odometers. These are used legitimately in the automotive trade to convert kilometers to miles—and vice versa—on imported vehicles, but can easily fall into the wrong hands, and they leave no visible trace.
It’s not all doom and gloom. While odometer rollback is difficult to spot, there are usually big clues just waiting to be found, if the buyer knows where to look. Below, we’ve outlined the steps you can take to ensure you don’t get scammed.
Make Sure You Receive the Original Title
When a vehicle is sold or transferred, the seller is required to hand over the vehicle’s title paperwork to the new owner. This is the vehicle’s official documentation and includes all its vital statistics. It’s a legal requirement to include the correct mileage on titles for vehicles that are less than 10 years old.
Always request the original title if possible, and be on your guard if there’s only a duplicate. The mileage figure should be clearly and crisply typed on a clean background with no marks or smudges. If any of the numbers are obscured or difficult to read, this should ring alarm bells.
Take note, too, if the title is brand new or from out of state, as this could be a case of title washing. Title washing is another type of automotive fraud, where unscrupulous sellers move vehicles previously designated as “damaged” or “salvaged” between states in order to gain a new “clean” title that doesn’t include this important information.
Examine the Odometer Itself
If you’re looking for signs of odometer fraud, then the odometer itself is the best place to start. If the numbers on the clock are misaligned, wonky, or obscured, walk away. Similarly, if you’re buying a vehicle made by GM and the spaces between the numbers on the clock are white or silver (as opposed to black), then there’s a good chance it’s been rolled back. Other manufacturers program their odometers to display an asterisk if any modification has taken place, so keep an eye out for this, too.
Look for More Clues
While digital odometer fraud leaves very few visible clues, rolling back the miles on an analog clock requires physical interference. Look for scratches on or around the dashboard, missing screws, or even screws in the footwell that may have come from the dashboard.
Then put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and really start poking around. Check for inspection or oil change stickers on the windows, under the hood, or inside the glove box. If possible, review the vehicle’s service history and maintenance receipts. Make sure to check anything that might include mileage details and a date.
Is the current mileage lower now than previously recorded? Or has the vehicle covered a surprisingly short distance over a significant period of time? While the former is pretty clear evidence of odometer tampering, be aware that there are many genuine reasons a car might not have traveled very far since its last oil change or service, regardless of how long ago that was. Your best option is to talk to the seller and ask them directly. You’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether their answer rings true, but it’s better than simply assuming the worst.
Compare the Mileage with the Physical Condition of the Car
Still wearing your detective hat, take a look at the physical components of the car. Pay particular attention to the pedals, windshield, and floor mats around the driver’s cab. Does the level of wear and tear seem consistent with the reported mileage?
Average mileage across the U.S. is around 12,000 miles a year, which means that a five year old car will likely have covered somewhere in the region of 60,000 miles. This is obviously not an exact science but if the odometer reads significantly lower than this and you’re looking at threadbare carpets and pitted paint, you might be looking at an example of odometer fraud.
Similarly, obviously brand-new components can be just as suspicious as those that look worn out. Car parts are designed with a limited lifespan for safety reasons and should be replaced at regular intervals. A clutch, for example, is designed to last for around 60,000 miles while a timing belt should be replaced after 100,000 miles. If you’re looking at a car with brand new parts despite the mileage suggesting they should last for at least another 30,000 miles, it’s worth asking why.
That’s not to say there are no valid reasons to replace parts earlier than recommended by the manufacturer. Again, we recommend asking the seller outright and making up your mind from there.
Inspect the Tires
Another reasonably reliable way of assessing how many miles a vehicle has covered in its life is to inspect the tires. Again, this isn’t an exact science by any means, and it’s not going to be applicable in all circumstances, but it’s a handy tip for your arsenal.
If you’re looking at a car with anything less than 25,000 miles on the clock, chances are that it still has its original tires. And if that’s the case, there should be around 2/32 inch (1.68 mm) of tread left on them. You can measure this with a professional tire tread gauge (or get a mechanic to do so for you) or, if you left your tools at home, you could always ask Abe Lincoln for help. Take a penny and, with the president facing you, stick him upside-down into the gap in the tread. If the tread is a minimum of 2/32 inches deep, it should at least partly cover his head.
Ask a Qualified Mechanic
The above checks are not foolproof, of course. Parts can be replaced at any point in a vehicle’s life, and some people will go to extraordinary lengths to improve their profit margins. Or you might be buying a vehicle whose mileage doesn’t fit into any convenient milestones. Which is why it might be worth asking a mechanic to properly inspect any vehicle you’re looking to buy. If you have a friend who will do this for free, then great, but the cost of a professional assessment might end up saving you much more down the road.
Check Official Records
You can review a vehicle’s history and important information online. Various websites provide a range of this type of service. Some are government-funded, some require payment up front before they tell you anything at all, while others will offer limited details for free with a more comprehensive report available for a fee.
You’ll need either the vehicle’s license plate number or its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), depending on what—and how much—information you’re looking for. Always make sure to check the credibility of the site before entering payment details or using their intel to make a financial decision.
What To Do If You Suspect Mileage Tampering
So you’re fairly confident that the car you were thinking of buying has had it’s mileage tampered with. Or, worse yet, you’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is the case for a car you already handed over the cash for. What can you do?
The NHTSA offers advice and information on what to do if you suspect odometer fraud on their website and via their Vehicle Safety Hotline. The general recommendation is that you contact your state enforcement agency. If you’ve already been the victim of mileage tampering, seek the counsel of a private attorney.
While it’s certainly not the easiest thing to spot, there are many steps you can take to make sure you’re protected against odometer fraud. Fundamentally, this means properly inspecting any vehicle you are interested in buying and asking the right questions. Does the physical appearance of the vehicle correspond with the proposed mileage? Are there any reasons to doubt the reading on the odometer? Always ask the seller to explain any anomalies. There are, after all, plenty of perfectly valid reasons that a car might have exceptionally low mileage.
If you have any doubts, it might be worth asking a qualified mechanic for their professional opinion. You can also find more details about a vehicle’s history online. And if things don’t quite feel right, simply walk away.