Identifying odometer fraud when buying a used vehicle

In an iconic scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," an attempt to roll back the odometer on a classic Ferrari ends disastrously. Unfortunately, con artists are often more successful at tampering with vehicle odometers so their mileage is much lower than the actual figure.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines odometer fraud as the intention resetting, disconnecting, or alteration of an odometer. It estimates that more than 450,000 vehicles are sold in the United States each year with fraudulent odometer readings, resulting in more than $1 billion in losses to drivers.

Rolled back odometers defraud a buyer since the lower mileage reading will help command a higher price than the vehicle is actually worth. The vehicle history resource CARFAX says the discovery of a fraudulent odometer might also result in a higher interest rate on your loan, a higher insurance premium, or even cancelation of your auto insurance altogether. In addition, you might be hit with unexpected maintenance costs if the vehicle is due for a more expensive tune-up or repair.

There is a certain misconception that odometer tampering is more difficult now that vehicles typically have digital odometers instead of mechanical ones. However, it is still possible to set the digital reading lower than the actual figure. Moreover, this fraud is more difficult to detect because it is less likely that there will be visible evidence of tampering.

With mechanical odometers, one way to detect fraud is to look for signs that the odometer has been removed and reset. The numbers might be crooked, have gaps, or wiggle when you bang on the dashboard. Armaan Almeida, writing for the automotive site CarsDirect, says there may also be telltale signs of damage on the dashboard or instrument cluster.

If the vehicle has a digital odometer, you can still check to see if there is more wear and tear than would be expected for the stated mileage. A vehicle which has a lot of miles on it will show heavier wear on the pedals, steering wheel, and shifter. The tires and brake pads may also be noticeably worn, which can be a red flag if the vehicle has a low figure on the odometer.

Check the vehicle history report as well as other documents related to the vehicle, namely the title and maintenance records. By comparing the figures on the records to those on the odometer, you'll be able to see if they match up.

Be careful when checking the title, as some scammers will "wash" the title so it reflects the fraudulent odometer reading. The NHTSA says others may tamper with the title by obscuring the mileage reading or otherwise making it difficult to read. In addition, vehicles 10 years old or older are exempt from the requirement that a seller must provide a written disclosure of the mileage on the odometer.

Simply trusting your instincts might be enough to alert you to potential fraud. CARFAX says if a vehicle's price seems too good to be true, it probably is. A vehicle with a low odometer reading and a less than expected sales price might actually have quite a few more miles on the clock.

You can also take the vehicle to a trusted third party mechanic for an inspection before you decide to purchase it. This inspection can let you know if the vehicle's condition is worse than what the odometer reading suggests.

Victims of odometer fraud have legal recourse to seek compensation from the seller. The NHTSA says that buyers must prove odometer fraud through factual evidence such as statements from previous owners or documentation. They can then be compensated with $1,500 or triple the amount of damages suffered from the odometer fraud, whichever is greater, along with attorney's fees.

If you believe you have purchased a vehicle with a fraudulent odometer reading, you can report the matter to the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles.

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