What is odometer fraud and how common is it?

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

odometer fraud

Odometer fraud is rising, but crooks are way past rolling the car in reverse to roll back the miles, like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That’s the message from Carfax, the nation’s leading vehicle history report provider. The company said that almost two million vehicles are on the road with rolled-back odometers, marking a significant increase from 2021 and an alarming statistic for car buyers.

What is odometer fraud?

Odometer fraud or odometer rollback is when a seller alters the vehicle’s odometer reading. This is done to raise the value of a vehicle, as the seller is shown the lower mileage as a positive point. Many people believe that digital odometers killed the ability to roll back an odometer, but bad actors have figured out how to muddle with every type of odometer out there. The financial impact of buying a car with a rolled back odometer can be severe, and the cumulative economic effect is stunning.

odometer fraud

How to identify odometer fraud

Depending on the car and the odometer, identifying odometer fraud can be quite challenging. One way to tell is to review the vehicle’s history report to find signs of tampering. If a recent service visit shows one mileage, but the car in front of you shows a lower number, something fishy is going on. You can also do this by reviewing the vehicle service records if there are any.

Next, check for signs of physical tampering. This can include scratching or marring of the material around the gauge cluster. Unless it’s been in a wreck or otherwise damaged, there should be no reason to fiddle with the gauge cluster, and if there was a legitimate repair, get the paperwork.

Talk to the seller and ask questions about the condition and mileage. Buying a used car is as much about trusting the person you’re buying from as it is about the vehicle itself. We also always recommend getting a pre-purchase inspection to protect yourself. An independent mechanic can tell you about the car’s current condition and alert you to any lurking problems. 

Last, take a careful look at the car yourself. Pay attention to wear and tear, including inside on the seats and floors. If the vehicle shows low mileage, it should also look like it has low mileage. Be wary of cars with unusual wear that doesn’t align with the odometer reading.

odometer fraud

What to do if you find odometer fraud

You have options if you unknowingly buy a vehicle with a rolled-back odometer. The first thing you need to do is contact your state’s office of consumer protection, anti-theft, or consumer services. The name and role of the agency vary from state to state, but the concept is the same. Depending on the state, the agency may open an investigation and sometimes levy significant fines against sellers proven to have altered a vehicle’s odometer reading. 

Once you’ve filed the report, let justice take its course. In some instances, you may be able to recover some of your financial loss from the seller if there is a decision against them. At the very least, your report can go a long way toward preventing the seller from defrauding anyone else.

Frequently asked questions

How many cars are sold each year with rolled-back odometers?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that more than 450,000 vehicles are sold yearly with falsified odometer readings. The agency estimates that the financial damage to consumers tops $1 billion annually.

odometer fraud

Is odometer fraud a federal crime?

We are not lawyers, but odometer rollback is covered by both state and federal law. It’s also a felony, so being convicted of the crime comes with severe consequences.

Can a dealer fix a rolled-back odometer?

It’s illegal for anyone – dealer or otherwise – to roll back an odometer to misrepresent mileage. That said, a dealer can change mileage readings, though there’s no way to know where to set a rolled-back odometer because the car’s original mileage is likely unknown. Depending on your state’s laws, you may not be stuck with the vehicle and may be compensated, but the odometer likely won’t be changed back if it’s been tampered with. 

Does odometer rollback make a car unreliable?

Not necessarily. Odometer fraud impacts value and buyer spending but does not otherwise impact vehicle operations. If a mechanic has checked the vehicle and given it the go-ahead, the odometer reading is only relevant to tell you when to change the oil. That said, knowing that you have a rolled-back odometer is a good reason to be extra tight with record keeping, as you don’t know how far the clock was turned back and when. 

Which used cars are the most reliable?

Toyota and Lexus still dominate the used car rankings, though others have climbed in recent years. The top vehicle in dashboard-light.com’s quality index is the Toyota Tundra, followed by the Toyota Sequoia, Toyota FJ, and 4Runner. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class made it onto the list, and the Jaguar XK from 2007-2014 snuck into the top ten, but Toyota or Lexus otherwise cover the group.

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