Odometer Fraud: Used Cars Lying About Their Age
It stands to reason that you've heard the phrase "time is money" — after all, it's been around for over two and a half centuries.
Coined by Mr. Benjamin Franklin in 1748 as a warning to idle people, it would thrill him to know its became the motto of hustler and two-timer alike. In any circumstance, Franklin's wisdom is inescapably true — even one he couldn't have foreseen: the used car market.
A car's mileage and age is the money it's worth, hundreds of thousands of dollars, or just one or two of the bills baring his likeness. When that much scratch is at stake, people can get real 'entrepreneurial', real quick.
Like a creeper on a dance club floor, the quickest way for a car to find somebody to go home with is to lie about its age.
Odometers have been keeping track of miles far longer than cars have been covering them (Franklin himself invented one of his own to measure the distance traveled by postal carriers for finding cost effective routes — they weren't going to put someone who didn't care about money on the $100 bill).
Where their accuracy helped Mr. Franklin, their inaccuracies help unscrupulous car sellers make undeserved money off of you.
"Clocking" and "Spinning":
Tampering with a car's odometer became known as "clocking" and "spinning" the dials back when they were actually dials — a ring and pinion reduction that spun the six tumblers with numbers on them.
That mechanism in the dash is connected to the drivetrain by a tightly wound, flexible cable that is engaged to measure when the car's transmission is in-gear. Only the tumblers in the dash need be tampered with to shave a few hundred or thousands of miles off a car.
"We estimate 1 in 10 cars have their odometer rolled back," said Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America and the author of "The Car Book".
The process of fiddling with analog odometers can leave behind clues that, with a keen eye, you can spot (and dodge the bullet heading for your wallet — and safety).
Vehicle History Reports:
CarFax, makers of vehicle history-reports, recommends that you pay attention to details in and around the dash and driver's seat for signs of a car trying to pass for "newer" than it actually is.
- Finger prints in the inside of a gauge cluster's clear plastic means someone's sticky fingers were where they shouldn't have been
- Extra-worn gas/brake/clutch pedals, shift knobs, and steering wheels on "low mileage" cars shouldn't be — unless the owner has a handshake grittier than sandpaper
- Be suspicious of trim-damage (marred or warped plastics) and loose screws near the gauge cluster
CarFax recommends paying attention to analog odometers with tumblers that have gaps between them, aren't aligned as straight as you'd expect, or (and this should definitely indicate something) 'jiggle' when you strike the dash.
The tumblers should move smoothly, without intermittent changes in the action.
Keep a close-eye on the 10,000-digit tumbler, there's money to be had in cars that are below the five-and-six-digit mileage marks. These will be the ones likeliest to be adjusted
TIP: a car with less than 10,000 miles should still be on its original tires; their make can be obtained from a brand dealer.
CarFax also recommends checking mileage against service-stickers, like oil changes. These are located in the door sills and window/windshield corners.
Truthfully though, anyone who didn't think to change these to help sell their story wasn't trying very hard — you should look deeper, suspicious or not.
Records, Records, Records:
Every time a car changes hands and is registered to a new owner, an account of its current mileage is taken and stored with the vehicles government records.
Services like CarFax provide records of this information (along with a car's history of reported accidents and repairs — even if the car was somewhere classified a disaster area).
Utilizing this tool instead of simply going by the title of the current owner can help you spot a mileage discrepancy that they had no ability to hide.
When looking at the title your prospective car seller has – check:
- the dates of their ownership-title against your vehicle report (reports take their data from DMV records)
- the mileage on their documentation for fading or anything "conveniently" making it hard to read
A full history report costs a fee, but CarFax offers free odometer-checks of charge on their website (you just need the car's Vehicle Identification Number, located at the bottom of the driver's-side windshield and door-sill sticker).
TIP: Even this kind of meticulous record-diving is no substitution for a good vehicle inspection by a mechanic of your choosing. Opt for one when possible.
Digital Odomoters, Faithful Guard or Fraud-Assiting:
The digital odometer, operating from the car's on board Electronic Control Unit/Module, was developed for stopping analog-tampering. Unfortunately, criminals can be ingenious and quickly adapt.
People familiar with the old style of "clocking" were foiled, but a more tech-savvy auto hustler emerged (with worryingly easy-to-find tools).
Engineers designed back doors into car's digital systems for correcting anomalies (like mismatched odometers from replacing a car's instruments).
There exists both software and hardware to 'correct' odometers, but they can also input whatever road-age you'd like. Not even reserved for the truly committed and well financed crook, some examples are relatively inexpensive.
Next-Generation Fraud Tools:
A "Tacho Pro 2008 Mileage Correction Odometer Adjusting Tool", sold by Shenzhen Acarobd Auto Electronics Co., Ltd in China retails for little over $200 on HDGate.com (an equally suspicious shopping website, with an image "borrowed" from eBay and Amazon).
The Tacho Pro odometer kit comes equipped to interface with:
- Mercedes Benz
- Land Rover
That's a helluva lot of access (and felony potential) for your two Benjamin bills.
It is a felony, thanks to the Federal Truth in Mileage Act (TIMA), to tamper with any car's odometer.
It is a costly form of fraud to potential consumers.
Without an accurate account of a car's mileage — critical, mileage-based maintenance goes unperformed (becoming even costlier repairs).
When checking a car:
Look over the cabin (especially the driver's area)
Check the gauge cluster for the signs (especially loose tumblers on analogue odometers)
Check external components like brakes, the trunk (lift back the carpet), and a car's fluids beneath the hood (low mileage should have fresh-looking fluids)
Your obsessiveness and attention to detail can spare you money and headache alike.