Before You Buy a Used Car, Check for Odometer Fraud

Odometer fraud, i.e. rolling a used car’s odometer back to make it appear less used, is sadly common. Here’s how to avoid it.

Any car, even a used one, is a huge investment — so you definitely don’t want to fall for something as avoidable as odometer fraud. While most cars made in the last few years use electronic odometers that are harder to jigger, fraud is still an issue for cars with mechanical odometers.

Here are some simple ways to check whether or not that honest-looking fellow trying to sell you that ’64 Nash with just 12,000 miles on the meter is on the up-and-up.

A Serious Issue

The goal of “busting miles,” as the Brits call it, is simple enough: the perpetrator wants to make it seem the car has less wear and tear than it really does. After all, it’s often hard to judge just by looking.

Odometer “clocking” is one of the most common consumer frauds out there. According to a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2002, as many as 450,000 used cars with “clocked” odometers are sold each year in the U.S. alone.

That amounts to as much as $1 billion in costs to the people who bought them. Fortunately, with electronic odometers, the problem is slowing down somewhat.

Telltale Signs

While there are paperwork methods of checking for false odometer readings, such as obtaining a title or certificate of registration with an odometer history, or getting a Carfax report on the auto, they’re slow. For best results, you’ll need to be able to tell just by looking.

Do the numbers on the odometer line up properly? They shouldn’t contain any gaps or be crooked. The 10,000 mile digit is the most important to pay attention to. Next, bang on the dash; do any of the numbers jiggle? If so, they’re probably jiggered.

Other Indicators

Look closely at the area of the instrument panel immediately around the odometer. Do you see any scratches? That’s a dead giveaway. Next, examine the dash. Are there any loose or missing screws? If so, it could mean someone has taken the dash apart to get to the odometer.

Take the car for a test drive. Does the odometer stick at all?

Finally, give the whole car a good inspection, focusing on general wear. If the odometer claims 45,000 miles and the car seems too ragged out for that number of miles, that should tell you something…at the very least that a previous owner was too hard on it.

Bottom Line

If the odometer reading and the car’s condition don’t match up, or you notice oddities about the odometer or the dash, think twice about buying the car. You don’t have to accuse the seller of odometer fraud, but if you’re worried, just back off and go elsewhere.