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Rolling back the miles: Odometer fraud and how to protect against it​

Jan. 12, 2017

Photo of an odometer.
Photo: ​Criminals can get a lot more money for a car when they roll back an odometer, but you get the short end of the stick. Read on to learn how to avoid odometer fraud.​

If you’ve ever bought a vehicle, you know how gratifying it can be to find the perfect deal. Maybe you’ve been keeping an eye on Craigslist for months in hopes that the perfect car will show up…and then one day, there it is! The exact make and model you want. It’s a little older than you’d prefer, but the mileage is pretty low.

Of course you ask about that when you meet with the owner—why wouldn’t you?—who assures you that it belonged to his dear departed mom, who really only drove it to church on Sundays.

P​erfect. You fork over the money and everything’s great…until the car starts having some very expensive problems—problems more in keeping with a car that has, say, 200,000 more miles on it.

​It’s possible you’re the victim of odometer fraud.  In fact, odometer fraud is one of the most prevalent vehicle crimes, according to the Minnesota State Patrol’s Vehicle Crime Unit (VCU). It happens most often with vehicles that are 10 years old or older. That’s because, in the sale of a vehicle that old, odometer disclosure is no longer required. So criminals know they have a better chance of getting away with rolling back the odometer on a car that’s at least a decade old.

An odometer cluster (that’s the part of your dashboard that houses the odometer, the gas gauge, and the speedometer) sells for about $60 at a junk yard. So criminals (who often specialize in a particular make or even model of vehicle) can buy a car with, say, 330,000 miles on it for less than $1000, put in an odometer that reads 120,000 miles, and sell the car for $5000. Once they get it detailed and use their sob story to sell it to an unsuspecting buyer, they’ve made a tidy profit.

VCU investigators work on cases that involve as few as one car and as many as 50, following up on reports from individuals, Craigslist users, and dealerships alike. They work the case behind the scenes, then charge the criminal with either odometer fraud (a gross misdemeanor) or theft by swindle (a felony).

So how can you avoid being taken in by a criminal like this next time you buy a vehicle? First, insist on running the VIN through a vehicle history search engine yourself. Criminals will very nicely do it for you, but they can easily alter the report. Second, look carefully at the title. The name at the top should be the name of the person selling it to you. If it’s not, walk away. And last, ask the seller how long they’ve owned the car, then compare that to the date of issue on the title. If they say they’ve had it for seven years but the title was issued last year, this is not the car for you.​​​​