Beware of the Check Engine Light Tape Scam in Used Cars

There’s always an element of risk when buying a used car, for you can never be entirely sure what you’re getting. Now, there’s another thing that used car buyers need to beware of: the check engine light tape scam.

Woman in Georgia gets scammed with purchase of used Toyota Camry

Mechanic showing the check engine tape scam in a used Toyota Camry car
Check engine light tape scam in a used Toyota Camry | CBS46 Atlanta via YouTube

Recently, Wanda King-Whitby searched through listings on Craigslist and Autotrader to find a good used car that fit her budget. She ended up buying a 2006 Toyota Camry with 151,000 miles, as reported by CBS46 Atlanta. She took the car for a test drive. Everything seemed fine, and the car salesperson told her that it didn’t have any issues. King-Whitby bought the used Camry and paid $4,000 for it.

As is the case with most used car buyers, King-Whitby didn’t take the Camry for a pre-purchase inspection before buying it. She said that “almost immediately, the car had issues.” King-Whitby continued, “It seemed like the transmission slipped or the engine slipped.”

During a post-purchase inspection at Theo’s Automotive in Peachtree City, Georgia, a mechanic found issues with the car that shat should have kept it off the road. The used Camry “had been poorly repainted, and there were signs the roof had been crushed.”

Scammer replaced the used Camry’s odometer to show fewer miles

These issues were only the beginning of the problem with the used Toyota Camry. In the past, the only way to reduce the miles on a car’s odometer was by removing the instrument cluster and then manually roll back the miles. However, now, scammers have an easier way to do it.

For the used Camry, someone removed its original instrument cluster. It was replaced with one with fewer miles. A service adviser at Theo’s “found the discrepancy on the vehicle’s Carfax report,” which showed the same car previously had 248,000 miles — not the 151,000 miles as shown when King-Whitby bought it. 

Used car sellers hide mechanical issues with check engine light tape scam

Along with showing fewer miles, the instrument cluster in the used Camry has another fraudulent element, as demonstrated by Glen Berry, a service manager at Theo’s. At first glance, the instrument cluster looked normal. However, Berry then “pulled back the semi-transparent cover covering the warning lights.” 

When a car starts, the warning lights in a car display for a self-check. There was one warning light that didn’t display in the Camry, though: the check engine light. 

“Upon trying to see why it doesn’t work, we actually started peeling the covering back, and you can see they put a little piece of electrical tape on it to black out where that light was on,” said Berry. He explained that “by covering the check engine light, a seller could make it appear there was nothing wrong with the car and that it would easily pass emissions.” Berry added, “This was intentional. They knew what they were doing.”

Get a pre-purchase inspection for a used car to avoid the check engine light tape scam

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CBS46 Atlanta visited AP Auto Repairs in Douglasville, Georgia, which sold the used Toyota Camry to King-Whitby. It requested an explanation for the replaced instrument cluster and the check engine light tape scam. In response, “the employees of the company claimed the car’s previous seller must have tampered with it.”

However, AP Auto Repairs gave King-Whitby a $4,000 cash refund. She deposited the money in her bank account. King-Whitby added that when she buys a new car again, she will “pay for a pre-purchase inspection.”

It seems like King-Whitby learned her lesson. As noted earlier, most used car buyers don’t get a pre-purchase inspection. Without one, it might be difficult for a used car buyer to know if a vehicle has a check engine light scam or other fraudulent issues. However, a pre-purchase inspection from a reputable mechanic should uncover any mechanic problems, helping car buyers to avoid these scams. 

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