Don't get flattened by a used
car with a rolled-back odometer
Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, looks
at a used car, she wonders how many miles have been rolled back on the odometer.
"So many dealers and sellers make profits off this. It's
almost the way they do business," Shahan says.
A dealer pockets an additional 10 cents profit for each mile rolled
back on a car's odometer. Ten cents for each mile may not sound like much, but
it adds up quickly.
Roll back 20,000 miles off an odometer and the price of the car
gets bumped up $2,000. That's an extra two grand for the dealer. Take 40,000
miles off a car and dealer might pocket an extra $4,000 or more.
Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that odometer fraud costs
Americans more than $1 billion in inflated car prices a year. That number does
not include inflated financing, insurance and tax costs, additional repair costs,
or consumers' anger and frustration at being cheated.
"It's buyer beware when you're dealing with mileage,"
says Dick Morse, director of the odometer fraud staff at NHTSA.
Technology fails to solve problem
There was lots of talk that odometer fraud would be curbed with the introduction
of digital odometers in the mid-90s. That hasn't happened.
"As long as there's a gauge on a vehicle, someone will find
a way to roll it back," says David Szwak, an attorney in Shreveport, La.
"The criminal always stays one step ahead."
It takes about 10 minutes to roll back a mechanical odometer.
Rolling back a digital odometer may take a few hours. There are plenty of people
out there willing to do it, as NHSTA has learned through its investigations.
"One guy, his whole livelihood is rolling back odometers
for dealers," Morse says. "He's figured out how to do it. It just
Hard-to-sell cars likely candidates
The most popular targets for odometer fraud are leased company
cars. Salespeople rack up lots of miles on these cars before turning them in
and dealers get stuck with two-year-old, high mileage autos that are tough to
Wholesale dealers (dealers who buy and sell cars to other dealers)
snatch up these high mileage cars, roll back the odometers and sell them to
retail dealers. Retail dealers then sell the tampered-with autos to unsuspecting
consumers. Most NHTSA investigations involve cars coming back off lease.
"You've got a couple million cars coming into the market
with 70,000 to 80,000 miles, and they're rolled back to 25,000 to 30,000 miles,"
Any popular, hot-selling vehicle may be a target of odometer fraud.
Sports utility vehicles were targeted in much of the 90s. Odometer fraud can
happen anywhere, but Morse says it seems to be especially heavy in the Northeast
and in states along the Canadian border.
Kilometers-to-miles conversion confusion
One of the latest scams involves used cars coming in from
Canada. These vehicles have odometers measured in kilometers that must be replaced
with odometers measured in miles. The mileage conversion from kilometers to
miles is often inaccurate.
"If you live in a border state -- watch out," Shahan
While the majority of odometer tampering happens in the wholesale
end of the auto business, it does occur at some retail dealerships. Retail dealers
that do odometer rollbacks are often involved in other kinds of fraud.
"If odometer fraud is going on, there's 10 to 15 types of
fraud going on," Szwak says.
Learning to spot and avoid cars with rolled back mileage may save
you a world of hurt.
"The No. 1 piece of advice is they should be skeptical,"
Shahan says. "Don't believe the odometer."
Beware of wear and tear
Keep your eyes peeled for inconsistencies. Does the odometer reading match the
mileage stated in the oil change sticker on the car's window? Does it jibe with
the mileage listed in the car's repair records? Are there marks on the odometer
or misaligned numbers? Does the car show more wear on the brake pedal or rugs
than is consistent with the alleged mileage?
A car with 20,000 miles should have its original tires. If it
doesn't, find out why. Trust your instincts.
"If you've got an inkling that something's not right with a car you're looking
at, it's time to walk away," Morse says.
Sites such as CarFax
let you check a car's history by its vehicle identification
number. You may be able to find out if a car has had one owner as the seller
claims, if the odometer has been rolled back or if a car has been junked
A CarFax search, while useful, might not provide a complete history
for every auto. The reason? CarFax gets much of its data from state motor vehicle
departments, and some of these departments are slow to report auto title information.
"They don't always get the data in time," Shahan says.
"They depend on getting data from states. Some states are excruciatingly
slow in recording the information."
Ask a mechanic you trust
The best advice for used car shoppers is to have the auto inspected by an independent
mechanic before buying.
"Take the car to a good, reliable mechanic to see if the
odometer reading is consistent with the wear and tear of the car," Morse
It can save you a lot of cash and a lot of headaches. Most consumers
learn about odometer fraud when a supposedly low-mileage car needs all kinds
of repairs or when they go to trade in the car and are offered a much lower
"Cars are so sophisticated. There's a lot that you can't
tell by kicking the tires," Shahan says. "It really takes a pro."
Amy C. Fleitas contributed
to this story.
-- Posted: Oct. 1, 2002