One in 10 American cars has a rolled back odometer, according to Jack Gillis from the Consumer Federation of America.
Odometer fraud is one of the oldest automotive scams and the introduction of digital odometers has done nothing to halt it. If anything, digital odometers can be even easier to manipulate than analogue ones.
Every year American car buyers lose over $1 billion to odometer fraud, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). When odometer rollback takes place, an average of 50,000 miles are wiped from the car’s clock.
Despite being a federal felony, odometer rollback fraud is popular with scammers because they can make such large profits. Buyers can be left with almost worthless cars which need expensive repairs.
The Cost of Odometer Fraud
Sarah Evenson’s story is typical for victims of odometer fraud. Shopping for a used car, she thought she had got a great deal from a private seller.
"The car was about 5 years old, looked to be in great condition, and I paid $6,000 for it," she says. But things soon started going wrong.
"It was burning oil. So I took it in to a dealer, and rather than deal with the repairs, I figured I'd just trade it in," she explains. When dealer ran a CARFAX report on her vehicle, Sarah realized that her car’s odometer had been rolled back 40,000 miles.
This meant her car was now only worth $900, so she decided to spend $3,000 replacing the engine. Overall she spent over $9,000 on a car worth just a fraction of that amount.
Digital Odometer Fraud
When digital odometers were introduced it was hoped that they would make odometer fraud more difficult. Unfortunately, they have proved easy for criminals to manipulate.
“Just like a hacker can do damage to a computer, someone with the right software and hardware can make a digital odometer read whatever number they want,” says Pat Goss, co-host of PBS's Motorweek.
Odometer fraud is highest in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, New York and Texas but it is so widespread that all used car buyers need to look out for it.
How to Protect Yourself against Odometer Fraud
One of the best ways to protect yourself is to buy from a reputable dealership. On our used car listings you can find vehicles near you which all have full CARFAX reports and are covered by the CARFAX buy-back guarantee.
- Compare the mileage on the vehicle’s title document with the odometer – be particularly wary if the figures on the title document appear blurred, smudged or hard to read
- Compare odometer mileage with that recorded on inspection and maintenance records – they should all be consistent
- Check odometer mileage against that on oil-change and services stickers – they can be found on windows or door frames, in the glove box, or under the hood
- On a car with a mechanical odometer, check that check that the numbers on the odometer gauge are aligned correctly – gauges which are crooked, have gaps or jiggle when you hit the dash are all signs of odometer rollback
- Look at the condition of the tires – a car with less than 20,000 miles on the clock should have the original tires
- Inspect the car’s overall level of wear and tear to see if its condition is as you would expect considering its mileage – particularly the pedals
- Get a free CARFAX odometer check
Before you buy, get a full CARFAX report and a car inspection from a qualified mechanic.
If You Are A Victim of Odometer Fraud
If you realize that you have bought a car with a rolled back odometer, trying to find the right organization to report this to can be confusing. The agency that deals with odometer fraud varies from state to state and you can find the full list here.
“There seemed to be something that was too good to be true with this car, and when we finally got the VIN number after two days of back and forth I ran a CARFAX check on it, and boy was I surprised! The odometer had been rolled back, it was a ‘97 instead of a ‘94, and it had failed the emissions inspection three times in the previous year! We almost bought a car for my son that would have needed at least $500 worth of work before we could even get it on the road for him! CARFAX is absolutely awesome!” - Aaron W.