A used car might look like it’s in mint condition, but that doesn’t mean you have no cause for concern. One of the most important factors in determining a car’s value is the odometer reading. Most people just look at the dash and take for granted the number reflected is the number of miles the seller drove the car. Few car buyers know that a seller can tamper with the odometer, making it look as though the car hasn’t traveled as far as it has, also known as odometer fraud.

What Is Odometer Fraud?

Odometer fraud is the act of rolling back a vehicle's odometer reading to display a lower mileage than the vehicle has actually been driven, either by disconnection, resetting or alteration. Prospective car buyers take this figure into account when considering a vehicle purchase. Tricksters have been using odometer rollback to deceive unaware buyers for years.

Back when vehicles had a mechanical odometer, the seller could manually turn back the clock, so to speak. Today’s vehicles have digital odometers. Manufacturers phased out mechanical odometers in the early 2000s.

Unfortunately, sellers can even alter a digital odometer. A cunning seller can remove the car’s circuit board and change the number or use an odometer rollback tool that’s capable of hooking right into the motherboard of the car.

How Common Is Odometer Fraud?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 450,000 motor vehicles sold every year have an invalid odometer reading. This is a crime that costs victims of odometer fraud in the United States over $1 billion every year.

How to avoid odometer fraud
How to Avoid Odometer Fraud | PrivateAuto

How to Spot Odometer Fraud

For those with an untrained eye or a person who’s never purchased a car before, spotting odometer tampering isn’t easy. But there are several ways you can check—some of which don’t even require a professional vehicle inspection.

For instance, the average American driver is on the road about 13,500 miles each year. What year is the car you’re thinking of purchasing? Multiply how old the car is by average miles driven and you can arrive at a figure that most likely resembles that of the actual mileage of the vehicle.

Also, if you suspect a dubious deal, consider the age and gender of the person selling the car. Not that a specific gender is more apt to deceive you – only that according to Car and Driver, American men drive an average of 16,500 miles every year compared to American women who only drive an average of 10,142 miles each year.

Aside from the above, there are better, more accurate ways to deduce the correct mileage of a vehicle. For example, always get the vehicle inspected before you buy. Getting the car’s history report is also a good idea. A history report can tell you any damage the car has sustained, if the manufacturer recalled the car but the seller hasn't had it fixed, if there are any liens against the title and more—including the odometer reading at each instance. When you review the report, match the historical readings with the current one and see if it follows a logical pattern.

If you’re a little mechanically inclined, you can also do a brief inspection yourself. Walk around the car or truck and make a note of the visible exterior wear and tear. What’s the interior like? How worn is the steering wheel? Combining these visuals with the information you get from the seller can help you determine if the odometer information is legitimate.

Why Is Odometer Fraud Dangerous?

Detecting odometer fraud is important. You want to know you’ve purchased a good car that won’t break down within weeks. By knowing how far the previous owner drove the vehicle, you can estimate how many miles it likely has left. How many miles a car has traveled significantly influences how much it’s worth—if you buy a vehicle with an altered odometer, you might pay more than the car is worth.

What if You Suspect an Odometer Rollback?

Modern cars and trucks have dual mileage tracking mechanisms. There’s the digital odometer in the dash and a control module under the hood. The control module tracks the actual miles driven, while the digital odometer can show a different number if someone has tampered with it. An individual cannot alter the mileage tracked by the control module.

If you suspect the odometer in the dash shows a fraudulent number, you can check the module. This requires a specific tool that most dealerships have on hand. You can also order a vehicle history report.

What most suspect sellers don’t realize is that tampering with an odometer to misrepresent a car’s actual condition is a criminal act. Always alert the local law enforcement agency if you discover odometer fraud–they likely have an odometer fraud investigations department. You can also report suspected odometer fraud to the Department of Transportation. Contact the Department of Justice to learn of federal laws applying to vehicle misrepresentation. Avoiding surprises when buying used vehicles is easy if you know what to look for.

How to Avoid Odometer Fraud

Avoiding odometer fraud is essential in finding the most dependable vehicle at a price that’s right for your budget. PrivateAuto can help you spot cars and trucks that might have had the odometer rolled back.

Perform a Title Check

A vehicle’s title can give you insight into its history. It’ll show if the seller ever salvaged the car you’re thinking of buying, if the record is clean and other details like the odometer reading at the time of last filing. Check to see if the title’s odometer reading on the vehicle matches up with what's on the title.

Inspect the Seller’s Service Records

Service records are not only a good thing to ask for so you can check that they kept up with oil changes and other maintenance, but most shops note the odometer reading at the time of service, too.

Also, it pays to know a bit about usual maintenance intervals. For instance, most trucks and cars need spark plug replacement about every 30,000 miles. If the seller’s records depict two spark plug replacements but the vehicle odometer shows 20,000 miles, either there’s an underlying issue with the engine or you could be the witness of attempted odometer fraud.

Look for Wear and Tear

Normal wear and tear shows the overall condition of a car. These indicators can also allude to the mileage. An older car with a lot of miles has more wear and tear. There are certain things that cars need replaced over time, such as light bulbs. You’ll also probably notice minor scratches or nicks in the paint. These are common issues that can occur regardless of the age of the car.

But if there’s extensive damage, such as large dents, stains or tears in the interior, broken or missing pieces, it’s likely the car has a lot of miles on it.

Check the Tires

The brunt of mileage falls on the car’s tires because they are the one part of the vehicle that’s always in contact with the road. The more a car’s driven, the faster the tires wear down. This doesn’t mean that a vehicle with worn tires and low mileage is necessarily a scam, however.

The condition of the tires depends on how the seller drove the car. If he or she is a long-distance commuter, they’re driving mostly on the highway. It stands to reason the car will have high miles, but it’ll withstand less wear and tear and the tires will be in good condition.

On the other hand, if the seller mostly drove within the city limits, the mileage may be low but the car might have more wear and tear and the tires will be more worn.

Ask the seller what type of miles the car has driven and you’ll have a more accurate gauge from which to decide if the car you’re considering will be dependable—and if it has an accurate odometer reading.

Wrap Up

Odometer fraud should be top of mind when you’re scouting a used vehicle. It’s more common than most people think, but you can protect yourself. If you’d like more information, contact us at PrivateAuto. We make it easy to buy or sell a vehicle privately.