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Odometer Rollback: How to Spot Odometer Fraud and How to Protect Against It?

Vesna Mihajlovic
Last update on:
July 11, 2022 12:39 PM
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Despite decades of effort to prevent or at least reduce odometer rollback, odometer frauds are still stubbornly common. Although the odometers have changed in the last 20 years and became digital, unfortunately, human nature hasn’t. There are still individuals and dealerships trying to sell vehicles for a higher price than what they’re worth. 

Even though there were hopes that the introduction of digital odometers will end alternating its readings, the truth is it didn’t happen. Quite the contrary, it has become even easier and faster to commit this type of fraud and roll back the odometer. 

Therefore, it’s critical to learn how to spot odometer rollback fraud and how to report it. Keep reading, and we’ll explain everything you need to know to protect your business from dealerships and individuals trying to trick you into buying vehicles for an inflated price. 

Vehicle’s Odometer Reading: An Important Factor in Determining Its Worth

There are a number of important factors that impact a vehicle’s worth. Its unique history like previous damage records and how it was maintained are both a part of calculating its value. Likewise, the odometer reading is used as an indicator of the wear-and-tear the car’s been submitted to.

In fact, it’s pretty difficult to determine a vehicle’s complete history, so the miles driven are used as one of the key indicators of its condition. The number of miles on the odometer determines its value and desirability. 

The logic behind it is: the higher the number, the lower the value. 

Vehicles with lower-than-average odometer readings are worth more than the ones with high mileage. Of course, how the miles racked up can make the difference too. 

For example, highway trips and driving in stop-and-go city traffic impact the car differently. The latter is considered to cause more damage.

With all this in mind, it isn’t a surprise that a number of individuals and dealerships are inclined to alter the odometer readings and earn more on selling used cars. 

What Does Odometer Rollback Mean?

Odometer rollback is the term used to describe tampering with an odometer reading to make it seem that vehicle has lower mileage than it actually does. It’s sometimes referred to as “busting miles” in the US, or “clocking” in Canada, the UK, and Ireland. As we’ve already mentioned above, both manual and digital odometers can be tampered with and their readings can be changed. 

This action fraudulently increases the value of the vehicle. 

Aside from being deceived into thinking that the car has lower mileage, and paying a higher price for it, there is more to be concerned about in the case of odometer rollback fraud. Mileage rollback affects not only the price but the functionality and durability of the vehicle. Even more, it can affect public road safety.

Spotting odometer fraud is therefore vital for more than just the potential financial loss.

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Is It Possible to Roll Back Mileage on a Digital Odometer?

Yes, it is possible to roll back mileage on a digital odometer and make its reading appear lower than the vehicle’s true mileage. Prior to the early 2000s, you had to manually roll back the numbers on a mechanical instrument whose purpose was to capture the distance a vehicle traveled. With the technological advances, the odometer rollback process had to be adapted but it can be done. 

A digital odometer can be rolled back by removing the car’s circuit board to alter the odometer reading. Aside from that technique, fraudulent individuals can also use rollback equipment to tamper with these devices. How does it work? It hooks into the vehicle’s electronic system and that’s how the car’s circuit board gets alternated.

Either way, the end result is that the mileage display is edited to read whatever number the person who is tampering with it puts in. Therefore, it’s crucial to check for signs of an odometer rollback.

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How Does a Car Odometer Work?

To help you better understand how is this type of fraud executed, let’s briefly explain how does a car odometer work in the first place. 

Traditional Mechanical/Analog Odometers

Until the early 2000s, manual odometers dominated the market. These simple devices consisted of a set of gears and were turned by a series of flexible cables. These cables connecting the odometer and transmission would usually spin inside a protective metal tube. 

 

To go more into detail, the speedometer gear spins these cables. It is connected to a set of gears that turn a numbered dial that shows mileage. 

For a distance traveled to be measured in an exact way, the gears of the analog odometer had to be perfectly calibrated. 

Digital Odometers

Most car manufacturers started replacing analog odometers with modern digital ones at the beginning of this century. The digital odometers base their readings on the movement of the tires, just like the analog ones. They differ in how the rotation on the tires are being tracked. 

Modern-day odometers rely on magnetic or optical sensors. These sensors record and count the number of rotations made by a toothed wheel that moves or spins as the tires move. The sensors record and send that information to the engine control unit or ECU via pulse signals. 

This unit uses an algorithm to calculate the distance traveled by the vehicle. It’s calibrated to calculate the distance traveled based on the size of the tires and their rotations.

The ECU is responsible for sending the pulses to the digital odometer, which will display the vehicle’s mileage. 

How to Detect Odometer Fraud: Signs of Odometer Rollback

Bear in mind that detecting whether the odometer readings are false can be difficult. Unfortunately, digital odometers have no visible moving parts, making it even harder to detect whether they have been tampered with compared to mechanical ones. 

If you’re thinking about buying a used vehicle, the first step to take is to check whether it has ever been reported for odometer fraud. Of course, even if it wasn’t reported before, it doesn’t guarantee an accurate and unaltered mileage reading.

After you’ve done this check, what else can you do to tell if the odometer has been rolled back? Let’s take a deeper look into how to check a used car for an odometer rollback. 

How to Check if Odometer Is Tampered With 

If you suspect odometer rollback fraud, or you just want to ensure everything is fine, these are the steps you can take: 

  1. Check the title and compare the mileage records with the mileage shown on the vehicle’s odometer. Car’s vehicle maintenance records and inspection records are a great source of data. The vehicle’s odometer readings should be included in these reports, so it’s pretty easy to check for signs of odometer rollback fraud.

  2. Go through a vehicle history report (VHR). A vehicle history report (also known as a VIN check) is a detailed report that provides information about a used car’s condition. Getting the history report is beneficial in more than one way. You’ll be informed of the vehicle’s damage history, lien status, and more. It also contains the registration history that comes with odometer readings. This means you can compare the numbers from the report with the current odometer readings. This type of data also gives you a chance to check if the pattern of mileage driven over the years is logical. Any inconsistencies in the number can be considered a red flag. If the seller doesn’t have this report, you’ll need the vehicle identification number (VIN) to obtain it online.

  3. Inspect the odometer for signs of physical tampering. There are a few important things to be mindful of when checking the odometer for signs of rollback. For starters, the numbers should be readable, there should be no gaps between them, and they shouldn’t seem crooked. For example, misaligned numbers are a reason for concern. If you see something like that, it’s likely the readings have been altered. Also, inspect all the dashboard screws and cluster. Check whether they are original and whether they match the ones shown in the manual. 

  4. Compare the vehicle’s appearance with the reading on the odometer. It is not always easy to conclude whether the odometer reading matches the wear and tear on the vehicle. It can be repaired to some extent to deceive the buyer. However, the gas, brake and clutch pedals can give off the vehicle’s true condition. Examine the tires too - if the odometer displays 20,000 or less, the vehicle should have the original set of tires. 
  1. In the case of digital odometers, you can consult a car servicing shop. A vehicle’s ECU keeps the record of the pulses captured by the magnetic or optical sensor and therefore stores the correct reading. Car servicing shops will normally have proper tools to determine the vehicle’s true mileage in case you suspect fraudulent acts. 

With all that being said, the best clues for spotting a potential fraud are the vehicle’s condition and a detailed history report. You can also consult a trained mechanic who’s skilled to recognize subtle signs of wear and tear that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Either way, a pre-purchase vehicle inspection is a must! 


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Is Odometer Rollback Legal?

No, odometer rollback isn’t legal. Odometer tampering in order to misrepresent a vehicle’s condition is considered a crime in the US. In fact, it’s been illegal since 1972. And ever since the Truth in Mileage Act was introduced in 1986, mileage disclosure is required when ownership is transferred. 

The odometer rollback fraud isn’t just about an inflated vehicle’s price. Falsely deflated mileage means that the car’s components and functionality may be compromised. This can cause breakdowns and accidents, and ultimately endanger people’s lives. 

That’s why odometer fraud is considered a serious crime in the US. In fact, due to its enormous costs to consumers and the damage it can make to public road safety, the federal government made odometer tampering a felony

The federal penalty for odometer tampering is up to $10,000 and/or 3 years in prison.

 

What Is the Penalty for Odometer Tampering?


Since odometer tampering isn’t taken lightly, the penalties for a conviction on federal odometer fraud charges can be both costly and severe. If we are talking about civil penalties, fines can go up to $10,000 for each violation. It’s important to note that every altered odometer constitutes a separate violation. 

In addition to this, defrauded individuals can also sue persons who committed fraud. The potential damages are expensive too. They can be three times the amount of the actual damages or $10,000, whichever is greater. And that is not all.

A person who knowingly and willfully engaged in odometer fraud can be sentenced to up to three years in federal prison.

When addressing the penalty for odometer tampering, it’s important to note that these charges are often accompanied by other offenses like false representations about a vehicle’s mileage. 

Unsurprisingly, persons who alter odometer readings frequently tend to alter or forge documents that contain mileage records for the vehicle. This is treated as a separate offense in the eyes of the law. 

How to Report Odometer Fraud

The breakthroughs in technology haven’t eliminated odometer fraud. It’s still an issue in every state. What if you’ve been an odometer rollback victim? If it happened to you, you should definitely report the case. This way, it will become a permanent part of the vehicle’s records. Also, future buyers will be able to avoid getting scammed by checking the records. 

Not only will you help other people, but the person or the dealership that committed the fraud will be held accountable for their illegal actions. They can be punished by law for their illegal behavior. 

Agencies that deal with odometer rollback claims differ from state to state. So, who do you report odometer fraud to? 

  • One way is to reach out to your local law enforcement agency, as they can inform you of your next steps.

  • You can report suspected odometer fraud to your state’s consumer protection agency too.

  • Otherwise, you can contact an experienced attorney who specializes in dealing with odometer fraud cases.


The Rise of the Odometer Rollback Frauds

We’ve all been under the impression that making the shift from manual to digital devices will put a stop to fraud and any kind of deception. It seemed that things will be more transparent and the security levels will be unparallel. However, digital odometers failed to fulfill these expectations. 

Odometer frauds are not just alive and well, they are actually easier and faster to commit with digital odometers in comparison to mechanical ones. According to federal estimates, over 450,000 vehicles with illegally altered odometer readings are sold each year. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, this crime costs car buyers in the US a staggering $1 billion each year. Such a trend is a cause for concern for any business that purchases used vehicles. 

Being able to easily multiply their revenue by selling vehicles for higher prices than they’re worth is a huge motivation for some people and dealerships. For example, a vehicle with a mileage of 150,000 can be easily rolled back to just 50,000 miles and resold for thousands of dollars more than its genuine value. And that’s just one car!

The Solution: Record Mileage Accurately With Mileage Tracking Apps

Given all the facts we’ve considered in this article, the best way to protect and optimize your business if it relies on a vehicle fleet is to ditch the outdated odometer system. The digital odometers haven’t made any difference in the odometer rollback statistics. Quite the contrary - they are even easier to tamper with!

Try out the Timeero mileage tracking app risk-free and we guarantee you’ll never look for another solution! Start your 14-day free trial today and easily monitor your team’s movements in real-time. Rest assured with all mileage and location data at your fingertips. And there’s no tampering with our app!

AUTHOR
Vesna Mihajlovic

Vesna is a psychologist, researcher, and writer with a wide range of interests focused on one goal: utilizing digital solutions to take businesses to the next level. Her expertise in human resources and workforce trends combined with her understanding of software’s role in business optimization is invaluable in helping them stay on top of the curve.

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