With the new-car market lagging and the used-car market catching momentum once again, and with a record number of vehicles coming off leases, sleazy middlemen and low-life used-car dealers out to make some cheap bucks (and give the honest ones a bad name) will be especially busy rolling back odometers.

That’s right: Even though it hasn’t received much press in recent years, odometer fraud is just as prevalent, if not more prevalent, than ever. "We see this with every economic period. When interest rates go up, more vehicles get clocked," said Richard Morse, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Odometer Fraud Program.

Odometer fraud can cost you thousands of dollars in the long run, by causing you to pay more than the car is worth in the first place and for added mechanical repairs that wouldn’t otherwise be needed. Clocking can typically add four to five thousand dollars to the price of a late-model vehicle, and experts estimate the overall economic impact of odometer fraud to be as high as $10 billion per year. If you’re going used-car shopping, here are some tips on how to spot and avoid cars with “rolled-back” odometers:

Nothing’s tamper-proof. Whether the car has an old-style analog odometer with numbers that physically turn, or a newer digital odometer with an LCD display, crooks have found a way to beat it. Automakers switched over to the digital design mostly because of a lower cost, better reliability, and a reduction in moving parts, although having a digital dashboard doesn’t necessarily guarantee better security. According to Morse, "They have it down to where they can clock it (some analog odometers) in five minutes." Morse says that the toughest digital units can be rolled back in a few hours.

Look for the obvious. If the car has an analog odometer with numbers that rotate, check if the leftmost digits look misaligned. Another obvious sign of tampering is pencil marks on the numbers or the number face. If the car has a digital odometer, look for one or more digits that isn’t a number, but rather an asterisk or an “E,” signifying that the mileage is wrong.

Get physical (evidence). Scuff marks around the gauge cluster, scratches around the edges of the lens, missing dash screws, analog numbers that scrape against the instrument face, or a trip odometer that no longer works are all suspect.

Make sure the carpet matches the drapes. When crooks “roll back” odometers, they often can’t cover up obvious evidence that the mileage isn’t true. Check that the wear of the car’s interior, matches the claimed mileage. For instance, a sedan with 22,000 miles probably wouldn’t have a worn-smooth brake-pedal pad and a hole worn in the carpet at the heel area of the gas pedal. Also, take a look underneath to see if higher-mileage items like shocks and springs have been replaced on a “low-mileage” vehicle.

Off-lease and fleet cars rarely have low miles. If you are considering a car that was previously leased, and it has a surprisingly low odometer reading, suspect that it’s been tampered with. Leased vehicles are typically driven up to 30,000 miles per year. Worse yet, business fleet vehicles average about 35,000 miles per year, with four million of them flooding the used-car market. Morse estimates that a significant portion of them are rolled back, and advises that minivans, midsize SUVs, and pickups are popular fleet vehicles targeted by clockers, because of their demand and resale potential.

Check the car’s title and registration records. Look for service stickers or emissions-inspection tags, warranty cards, or service receipts left on or in the vehicle that might have odometer readings, and make sure they coincide with the current reading. If any of them shows a much higher mileage, be very suspicious. As an added precaution, order a Carfax Vehicle History Report to check on the reported mileage of the vehicle when the title has changed hands, and to check for any blemishes in its history, such as flood damage. Avoid vehicles that have changed owners more than twice within a short period of time, especially to several different states, as they are far more likely to have fraudulent odometers and/or other problems that have been covered up. If you are still interested in the car but suspect that the miles aren’t true, try to contact the previous owner to check what the mileage was at trade-in.

If you are serious about purchasing the vehicle, always arrange to take it to your regular mechanic for an inspection, making sure that the odometer reading matches the car’s condition. The Carfax fee and mechanic’s inspection fee will more than pay for themselves in the long run by saving you the costly mechanical headaches of a high-mileage car, not to mention that awful feeling of being taken for a ride.

©2004 by The Car Connection™ All Rights Reserved

Bengt Halvorson

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