Earlier this month, federal agents brought charges against four who were involved in an organized crime ring—based in the Seattle area—that involved at least 75 vehicles. The criminals would buy vehicles with high mileage, 'clock them' back to lower mileage, then resell them as low-mileage used vehicles.
As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has pointed out, it could put your safety in jeopardy as there are certain vehicle components—like timing belts, or ball joints—that, even in well-maintained vehicles, need to be replaced at a particular mileage.
Some of the old advice, like looking for tampering around the gauge cluster, still holds, but in this era of digital odometers it's no longer possible to see, as you could sometimes with older analog models, that small-time crooks had tampered with the numbers.
Years ago, automakers switched to digital odometer designs not only because they were more secure, but because they cost less, were more reliable, and used fewer (potentially noise-producing) moving parts.
In fact, those new types of odometers—and how much harder it is to tamper with some of them—has changed the face of odometer fraud. While it used to be an activity mostly committed by lower-tier used-car dealers and resellers, it's now mostly an organized operation.
Here are some tips on how to spot (and avoid) vehicles with 'rolled back' odometers:
- Get a title check. Check through Carfax or AutoCheck before you sign anything, and look at its mileage history. If this brings up any questions, look at service stickers and ask to see the vehicle's service records. Also, ask to see the actual paper title, and be suspicious if a 'new' one has recently been issued.
- Look for the obvious. Scuff marks around the gauge cluster, a set of gauges or odometer that looks newer or cleaner than the rest of the dash, or a trip odometer or other functions that no longer work are all potential signs of tampering.
- Does the carpet match the drapes? This one's important. If a car has 30,000 miles, there's no way its brake pedal could also be shiny and almost bare. Look at the brake pedal, the heel area below the accelerator pedal, and the driver's seat cushion for signs that this car has a lot more wear (and miles) than what's indicated.
- Consider fleet vehicles only with scrutiny. If you're considering a vehicle that has previously done fleet duty, beware. Odometer fraud rings love these because, as they often have high miles, they can be bought cheap at auction, with strong resale potential—especially after they've been 'clocked.'
- Beware the cars with stories. Larger-scale, organized-crime odometer operations will typically pass their vehicles down to smaller-time crooks, sketchy used-car lots, or other dishonest dealers. Then those dealers will make up a story—like that it was granny's car, or the owner was called overseas—to make it more credible. If the seller can't give anything more specific, and there are already other issues, walk away.