Do ‘Odometer Fraud’ Scams Still Happen Today?

Finding the perfect used car can come with a lot of headaches and crossed fingers depending on what kind of shape it’s in. And while we always advise getting a pre-purchase inspection done when you purchase a used car, there could be hidden issues that you might find out about later on. One such issue is odometer fraud, or “odometer rollback,” a once prevalent crime that’s apparently still around today.

What is odometer fraud?

According to NHTSA, odometer fraud is defined as “the disconnection, resetting, or alteration of a vehicle’s odometer with the intent to change the number of miles indicated.” This shady practice was popular back when cars had analog odometer readouts that consisted of six little dials that spun forward every time a new mile was added on.

But for those handy enough with a  drill and a couple of other tools, they could take out the instrument panel and effectively spin back those numbers and take miles off the car instantly and increase its value by a few thousand dollars. NHTSA estimates that there are approximately 450,000 cars sold each year with false odometer readings, which can easily cost Americans $1 billion annually when it comes to repairs.

a digital odometer display
An automobile odometer with 100000 miles shown . (Photo by: Universal Education/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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How do you find out if your car was subject to an odometer rollback?

Odometer fraud can be discovered in a couple of different ways. If you’re shopping for a used car, then the first thing you’ll want to do is run a Carfax or Autocheck report on it. If the car’s mileage doesn’t add up, then the reports will show that since the mileage logged for each entry were not in sequence. However, as most cars have digital odometer displays nowadays, catching a rollback can be a little tougher.

Some shady car sellers that have a little money to spend will likely spend it on a scan tool that typically costs around $300. This tool works just like the one that your mechanic has, as it plugs into the diagnostic port on the car and allows the user to change the mileage readout to whatever they want.

And while you might think that it would be impossible to catch this wrongdoing, the good news is that you can take it to a dealership and ask them to pull the odometer reading from the “control module,” which is what logs the true mileage on the car, in addition to the mileage that shows up on the readout on the instrument panel. If the mileage has been tampered with, then the readout number will be different than the one saved in the car’s control module.

RELATED: Frugal Shoppers Beware: Cheap Used Cars Have Higher Fraud Risk

How to protect yourself from odometer fraud

Fortunately, you can still protect yourself from getting scammed due to odometer fraud. First, when you go to check out a vehicle that you’re interested in, be sure to examine the car closely and ask the seller about the odometer reading as well as other questions about the car. As Carfax states, “if the deal sounds too good to be true, then chances are that your instincts are correct.”

As always, be sure to take the car to a qualified mechanic as they will be more equipped to look for issues in and around the car. If some of the normal wear and tear items on the car don’t add up, given its low mileage, then it’s time to be suspicious. For example, if the car needs spark plugs and wires, which are typically due at 100,000 miles, but it only has 40,000 miles on the odometer, then something could be amiss.

an analog odometer display
1960s 1970s SPEEDOMETER DASH DASHBOARD VINTAGE CAR MILEAGE READS 99999.9 CONTROLS (Photo by R. Krubner/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

If you do happen to find a car that’s subject to an odometer rollback, then simply don’t buy it. And if you bought a car that’s you suspect has been subject to odometer fraud, then you can contact your state’s attorney general or whatever agency handles this type of fraud. Here is a full list by state, courtesy of Carfax.