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10 Tips to Avoid Being Scammed by Unscrupulous Practices in the Used Car Industry

The following post appears courtesy of Ken Jost, Deputy Director, Consumer Protection Branch, Civil Division

A man in Seattle purchased a pickup truck with 68,900 miles on the odometer.  One of the truck’s wheels fell off while his son was driving. A small business owner in Wyoming purchased a pickup truck with 101,000 miles showing on the odometer. After paying $10,000 for the truck and another $3,000 for repairs, the truck still needed a lot of work. He was stuck trying to operate his business with an unreliable vehicle and no cash for a replacement. Were these people merely unfortunate, or were they victims of crime?  The truck the Seattle man purchased actually had more than 190,000 miles on it. An odometer rollback specialist, or “clocker,” had turned back the odometer over 100,000 miles to inflate the truck’s value.  The truck in Wyoming had over 204,000 miles, but had fallen into the hands of a clocker who rolled back the odometer and cheated the buyer.  Each year Americans buy and sell around 40 million used vehicles with a total value in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  The Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch brings both civil and criminal charges against wrongdoers, prosecuting a wide variety of frauds ranging from fraudulent business opportunities to mortgage frauds to these types of criminal car fraud schemes. This multi-state odometer fraud activity makes it difficult or impossible for most local law enforcement agencies to investigate effectively. That’s why most cases are state-federal joint efforts, pairing local and state law enforcement agents with criminal investigators from the Office of Odometer Fraud Investigation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in an effort to gather evidence from multiple jurisdictions.  Two common types of odometer tampering schemes are (1) Large-scale rings buy huge numbers of vehicles at wholesale, roll back the odometers, wash the titles and resell the vehicles wholesale. These cars can end up anywhere, including a used car lot of a local new car dealer; and (2) People who pretend to be selling personal vehicles through classified ads or Internet advertisements sites might tell you it’s their car, or a relative’s that they are selling. In fact, the car may be something they bought at auction or from some other commercial source and have rolled back the odometer. Be wary of any personal sale involving someone other than the owner named on the title. Run as fast as you can from any sale where the seller won’t show you the title, where the title has any indication of alteration of names or numbers, or where the title is newly issued, especially if it is an out-of-state title.  Wherever you buy a used car, have a trusted mechanic check it out to see if the odometer reading is consistent with what the mechanic sees under the hood and in the dash. Ask the mechanic to check the dash for loose, removed or blown out light bulbs. Odometer tampering can set off warning lights and correct manufacturer codes are required to reset them. Also, ask the shop to check for any signs of a rebuilt wreck or water damage.  Here are some additional tips to guard against odometer tampering:

  1. Look for loose screws or scratch marks around the dashboard. This may signal that a mechanical odometer which has been manipulated with tools.
  2. Also on mechanical odometers, check to make sure that the digits in the odometer are lined up straight — particularly the 10,000 digit.
  3. Test drive the car and see if the speedometer sticks.
  4. Check for service stickers inside the door or under the hood that may give the actual mileage. The bad guys try to find these as well, but sometimes miss one.
  5. Look in the owner’s manual to see if maintenance was listed or if pages that might have shown high mileage were removed.
  6. Ask the dealer whether a computer warranty check has been run on the car.
  7. Use a commercially-available computer search program that checks for mileage alterations.  Some car dealers will give you one of these for free if you ask for it. 
  8. Ask to see the title documents and look to see if the mileage reading on the documents has been altered.
  9. Look to see if the steering wheel was worn smooth.  Look for other signs of excessive wear on the arm-rest, the floor mats, the pedals for the brakes and gas, and the area around the ignition. If these items were recently replaced, that could also indicate efforts to hide the car's true use and mileage.
  10. Don’t assume that mileage is accurate just because the vehicle has an electronic odometer. 

Most important, and worth repeating: have a mechanic you trust check out the car. For more information on odometer tampering, see The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office of Odometer Fraud Investigation  and The National Odometer and Title Fraud Enforcement Association

Updated March 3, 2017